FWC orders more work on Weeki Wachee Spring protections

weeki wachee fwc
Agency staff suggested springs protection zones around point bars.

Enhanced protections for the Weeki Wachee Spring remain far off as the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) kicked the issue back to agency staff and asked them to work out a plan with Hernando County officials.

Local government officials and conservationists asked FWC for a spring protection zone to deal with heavy use of the shoreline by boaters that damages the habitat. Following the request, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) asked FWC to extend the zone into Weeki Wachee Springs State Park all the way to the spring boil.

The zone requested would stretch from the spring boil to nearly 6 miles downriver. It would prohibit “anchoring, mooring, beaching or grounding of vessels. Within the spring and associated portions of the spring run,” according to a memo to Commissioners by Roger Young, the new FWC Executive Director and former head of the Division of Law Enforcement.

Protection would prevent damage to the water bottom, shoreline and aquatic grasses.

Agency staff, after analyzing the evidence, suggested spring protection zones around point bars within the spring run. That would cover 20 point bars and a little more than half a mile of river from the state park boundary to the Rogers Park boat ramp. 

“We came to that determination for a number of reasons,” said Rachel Bryant, the State Boating Law Administrator and a Captain in the Division of Law Enforcement’s Boating and Waterways Section.

“The DEP is charged with preserving, regulating and controlling the operation of public parks, which includes determining the allowable activities within the parks. DEP has an existing rule which prohibits anchoring and mooring of vessels within 100 feet of shoreline of waters within and contiguous to state park areas.”

She spoke at the Commission’s meetings this week in Miami.

Given DEP’s responsibilities, it’s in that agency’s hands to establish a possible rule against beaching and grounding without first having to prove harm, which is part of the FWC’s rulemaking process. Park rules also encourage people to remain in their vessels and limit the number of paddlecraft taking off from the park. 

The spring protection zone rule, which gives FWC the authority to step in here, only allows zones where staff can prove harm, and no larger.

“Establishing zones in these (point bars) will limit the impact to waterway access to locations where we have seen evidence of harm occurring due to vessel activity,” Bryant said.  

Roy Johnson, a nearby homeowner and President of the Weeki Wachee Rescue Team, said the proposal is a step in the right direction, but not nearly enough to get the job done and may actually result in negative effects.

There’s about 4.7 miles of shoreline in this discussion, he said, while the combined areas protected comprise around 0.62 miles.

“This means you’re proposing to protect only 13% of the designated shoreline,” Johnson said.

“So, your plan leaves 87%, or 4.1 miles, unprotected. There are literally thousands of vessels utilizing this river on any given month. During most of the day, you are more likely to find a significant number of them under the shaded tree canopies that overhang the shorelines and not just on the point bars. They typically are beached, moored, grounded and tied off to the banks, to the trees, to the exposed root systems resulting in significant damage to the state’s sovereign land and other public lands.”

Staff with DEP and FWC recently met in which DEP representatives expressed that the agency backed Hernando County’s larger proposal, as is the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

“Seems like everybody supports the county’s request,” FWC Chair Rodney Barreto said. “Why wouldn’t we support the county’s request?”

Bryant said the staff was sticking to actions authorized by the springs protection zone rule.

“Let’s just align ourselves with the county, bring (the proposal) back (in July) — I would love to get a little more input from DEP and from … the Southwest Florida Water Management District,” Barreto said.

Assistant Executive Director Thomas Eason said the move here, which Commissioners endorsed, is to instruct staff to gather more information and be ready to present in July a rule that works and is legally defensible.

Wes Wolfe

Wes Wolfe is a reporter who's worked for newspapers across the South, winning press association awards for his work in Georgia and the Carolinas. He lives in Jacksonville and previously covered state politics, environmental issues and courts for the News-Leader in Fernandina Beach. You can reach Wes at [email protected] and @WesWolfeFP. Facebook: facebook.com/wes.wolfe


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