WEEKI WACHEE — Any day, a dredging contractor is expected to begin the multi-million dollar restoration of the Weeki Wachee River after intensification of public use in recent years has eroded riverbanks, bared sandbars and flattened and widened the river .
Last month, the river’s most vocal advocate filed a formal complaint with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, arguing that the agency, which operates Weeki Wachee Springs State Park on the river’s upper reaches, is not doing enough to protect the waterway and dredging from state legislatures approved investments.
Shannon Turbeville’s complaint said he did not believe the agency had met its legal requirements to seek input from a citizens’ advisory board before updating the state park’s management plan. But his main concern is that the plan lacks adequate enforcement measures to support rules designed to keep the river healthy.
Social media is awash with examples of how people continue to ignore the rules that kayakers stay in their boat, stay away from sandbars and shorelines, and stay away from the water. these activities harm the river. Enforceable bans will likely soon apply to portions of the river outside of the state park.
But despite longstanding rules prohibiting people from getting off their boats Within the state park’s boundaries, river watchers say this happens all the time without state officials doing anything.
The 927-acre Weeki Wachee Springs State Park leases most of its land from the Southwest Florida Water Management District. Within these state park boundaries, signs instruct people renting kayaks from the park vendor to stay in their boat. Leaving their boat or swimming in the water is strictly prohibited.
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 disembarking from their boats, trampling on shorelines and sandbars, swinging from rope swings, and jumping into the river caused erosion, tree loss, vegetation destruction, water quality deterioration, and other damage to the river’s health.
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The district issued a new rule prohibiting people from bringing their boat ashore on the reservation. But enforcement of that rule was a problem until recently, when Hernando County petitioned the state to make that portion of the river a “spring protection zone” under new law.
If that request is granted later this summer, the new zone will empower local and state law enforcement agencies to cite those who ignore the rules, which focus on a tourism experience where visitors stay in their boat and enjoy it, passively by to float the natural environment without damaging it.
Two years ago, the state park began updating its management plan and convened a public advisory committee for an introductory meeting in October 2019. Turbeville was a member of that committee, but said that despite promises that there would be another meeting to provide input on the creation of the new management plan after the viability study was completed, it did not happen.
Dee Ann Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said there will be a second input session open to anyone in the public who wants to comment on the final draft plan in December. She also said the management plan itself was approved by a committee representing multiple agencies at another public meeting last month.
Turbeville also raised the question of appropriate enforcement after learning from a public records request that there were no citations within the state park’s boundaries during the summer of 2020, despite ongoing rule violations.
The Water District has 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 enforcement of existing rules, such as the rule affecting visitors disembarking ships within park boundaries… The position of the District, this enforcement of existing and proposed rules is essential to limit and prevent the impact of visitor use on the river and would require this element to be included in the plan and described in more detail.”
The district eventually failed to advance the issue, said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, public information officer.
“When (Morrison) discussed the district’s enforcement concerns with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, they committed to addressing 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 agency responsible for enforcement is the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, and while the state park’s management plan “may include language for the park to coordinate with FWC and local agencies regarding law enforcement, it guides.” not the actions of FWC or other law enforcement agencies.”
She added that the agency “currently has no plans to change the approved plan.”