Commissioners and those attending the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting Sep 28, 2021 heard the latest from the Weeki Wachee Working Group. The group was assembled in 2018 to discuss the repair and future maintenance of the Weeki Wachee River, which has seen an increase in visitors in recent years. The multi-agency group consists of members of Hernando County, Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD), Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission (FWC).
Results of the 2020 Carrying Capacity Study showed that human activity is the primary cause of riverbank erosion, denuding of vegetation, and water quality problems. Actions such as lingering on sand point bars, jumping from trees and banks, and trampling vegetation have been determined to cause these issues, and the group is seeking to change the behaviors of visitors to the river through awareness, education, and enforcement of new regulations.
The type of vessel was not identified as a factor in the problems. Restrictions on vessels already exist in the state park, and further restrictions would require “substantial competent evidence,” and are likely difficult to obtain.
While it is highly encouraged that kayakers, paddleboarders, and others remain in their vessels, the modification of Florida Administrative Code (40D.9.111(2)) passed in 2020 states that SWFWMD property may not be accessed from the river. The passage of this law will allow law enforcement to first warn visitors that they are trespassing, and subsequently issue citations. Signage will be placed to alert visitors to the change. The first mile of the Weeki Wachee River is state park property and already has this prohibition in place.
The majority of land along the Weeki Wachee is owned by either SWFWMD or the state. FWC patrols and enforces laws within the state park, the Hernando County Sheriff’s Office (HCSO) has increased its presence on the river to cover the remainder.
SWFWMD launched its public education campaign in March 2021. This curriculum includes an informational website, social media presence, providing educational materials to local businesses, hosting media tours, and providing outdoor signage. SWFWMD provided $28,000 in funding for research and educational materials. The success of the public education campaign is measured by future behavior changes.
Commissioners discussed the Weeki Wachee’s attractiveness to tourists who rent watercraft but may not be aware or respectful of the impact their actions have on the delicate nature of the waterway. Legally, it is not impossible to hold rental businesses accountable for the actions of their patrons. According to County Attorney Jon Jouben, it would be difficult to establish “vicarious liability” to make it possible to enforce.
Commissioner Steve Champion began his suggestion noting it may be considered unpopular. “The real solution for a river like this would be to not have any of the rental companies on the river. I don’t know how you do that now that you’ve started it.” Champion went on to say that another solution would be to not issue any more permits for vessel rentals along the river going forward.
Champion favors an “access fee” for visitors to the river since no funding has been allocated for its upkeep and repair. He added that such a tax would be fair since it would only impact the users of the river and not residents who do not visit.
More information: watermatters.org/protectweeki