State officials aren’t doing enough to protect the Weeki Wachee River, advocates say

WEEKI WACHEE – Any day now, a dredging company is expected to begin a multimillion-dollar restoration of the Weeki Wachee River after increased public use in recent years eroded the banks of the river , denuded the sandbanks and made the river shallower and wider.

Last month, the river’s most vocal attorney filed a formal complaint with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, claiming the agency, which operates Weeki Wachee Springs State Park at the source of the river, does not do enough to protect the waterway and dredging. investment approved by state legislators.

Shannon Turbeville’s complaint says he doesn’t believe the agency followed its legal requirements to get feedback from a citizens’ advisory committee before updating the state park’s management plan. But his main concern is that the plan lacks adequate enforcement to back up the rules designed to keep the river healthy.

Aerial drone view of people gathering on a sandbar on the river near Weeki Wachee State Park Wednesday, May 4, 2022 in Weeki Wachee. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Social media is full of examples of how people continue to ignore the rules that kayakers stay in their boat, avoid sandbars and shorelines, and stay out of the water. These activities harm the river. Soon, enforceable bans will likely be in place on portions of the river outside of the state park.

But despite long-standing rules that prohibit people from getting out of their boats Inside the state park boundary, river watchers say it happens all the time with little to no action from state officials.

A sign encourages paddlers and boaters to stay in their boats on the Weeki Wachee River within the boundaries of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County.
A sign encourages paddlers and boaters to stay in their boats on the Weeki Wachee River within the boundaries of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The 927-acre Weeki Wachee Springs State Park leases its land primarily from the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Inside the boundaries of these state parks, signs direct people who rent kayaks from the park vendor to stay in their craft. It is strictly forbidden to get out of their boat or swim in the water.

Outside the park boundaries, much of the river is owned and managed by the Water Management District as the Weekiwachee Preserve.

In 2019, a carrying capacity study showed that people leaving their boats, trampling on shorelines and sandbars, swinging on ropes and jumping into the river caused erosion, loss of trees, destruction of vegetation, degradation of water quality and other damage to the health of the river. .

Left to right: Barbie Beltran, of Spring Hill, Anna Sayers, of Jackson, Michigan, Drew Berry, of Jackson, Michigan, Michael Santos, of Spring Hill, John Roger, of Tampa, Manuel Santos, of Spring Hill, and Johnny DeMico, of Tampa, parks on a sand bar on the Weeki Wachee River Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County.
Left to right: Barbie Beltran, of Spring Hill, Anna Sayers, of Jackson, Michigan, Drew Berry, of Jackson, Michigan, Michael Santos, of Spring Hill, John Roger, of Tampa, Manuel Santos, of Spring Hill, and Johnny DeMico, of Tampa, parks on a sand bar on the Weeki Wachee River Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
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The district has enacted a new rule prohibiting people from getting out of their boats on reservation land. But enforcement of this rule was a problem until recently, when Hernando County asked the state to make this part of the river a “source protection area” under a new law.

If this request is granted later this summer, the new area will allow local and state law enforcement to cite those who ignore the rules, which focus on a tourist experience where visitors stay in their craft and enjoy floating passively. in the natural setting without damaging it. .

Two years ago, the state park began updating its management plan, convening a public advisory committee for an introductory meeting in October 2019. Turbeville was on that committee but said that despite promises that there would be another meeting to advise on the development of the new management plan once the carrying capacity study was done, this did not happen.

Dee Ann Miller, spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said there was a second comment session open to anyone from the public wishing to comment on the draft plan in December. She also said the management plan itself is approved by a committee representing multiple agencies at another public meeting last month.

Turbeville also raised the issue of proper enforcement after learning from a public records request that there were no citations within state park boundaries during the summer of 2020 despite continued violations. rules.

The golden retriever
Golden retriever “Ray” chases a Frisbee off a sandbar on the Weeki Wachee River during a canoe trip with Henny Molero and Johnny DeMico, of Tampa, Wednesday, May 4, 2022, in Hernando County. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

The water management district also questioned adequate enforcement.

Ellen Morrison, head of the land resources office, wrote in a draft letter that her agency “believes the plan does not adequately address the enforcement of existing rules such as the rule for visitors leaving ships at the inside the park boundaries…The District’s position is that enforcement of existing and proposed rules is essential to limit and prevent impacts on the river from visitor use and would require this element to be included and further detailed in the plan.

Aerial drone view of kayakers as they float along the river near Weeki Wachee State Park Wednesday, May 4, 2022 in Weeki Wachee.
Aerial drone view of kayakers as they float along the river near Weeki Wachee State Park Wednesday, May 4, 2022 in Weeki Wachee. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

The district ended up not pushing the issue, said public information officer Susanna Martinez Tarokh.

“When (Morrison) discussed the district’s enforcement concerns with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, they undertook to address those concerns outside of the plan. The district will continue to monitor this commitment to ensure it is being met,” she said.

Miller said the state enforcement agency is the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and while the state park management plan “may include language for the park to coordinate with the FWC and local law enforcement agencies, it does not direct the actions of the FWC or other law enforcement agencies.

She added that the agency “does not intend to change the approved plan at this time.”

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