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Weeki Wachee Is Being Destroyed By Docking Kayakers, Study Says

To the left, a yellow kayak on crystal clear blue water. To the right, a docked kayak with two snorkelers swimming in Weeki Wachee River.

Kayaks make up 90% of vessel traffic throughout Weeki Wachee, and 80% of visitors surveyed said that they dock their kayaks on either side of the 7.5 mile corridor.

A year-long analysis of recreation along the Weeki Wachee River was presented to the Board of Hernando County Commissioners last week. It found that people getting out of their kayaks cause the most harm to the natural resources attracting visitors in the first place.

They are grounding on the exposed sandy beaches on river bends, called sand point bars, and that has led to the erosion of natural vegetation and loss of organic soil.

One area in particular lost 1,600 square feet of vegetation between 2008 and 2017.

Advocate Shannon Turbeville addressed the commissioners during the public comment period.

"The data in the study suggests that the Weeki Wachee River is literally being loved to death. And it's up to all of us who benefit from it, have invested in it, and seek its enjoyment to be part of the solution," he said.

Turbeville suggested the county prohibit kayakers from grounding and anchoring on the river, except on private property or designated areas on public land.

He said this would ensure the $4.1 million the state legislature directed for Weeki Wachee restoration would not ultimately go to waste.

“I don't think it's too much for all of us to make a small compromise to not only help protect Florida's investment, but also prevent future access restrictions for public safety resulting from natural resource degradation,” Turbeville said.

Longtime resident Joe Gagliano told commissioners what he's witnessed.

"The only way I can describe how the river has changed in recent years is: Complete anarchy," Gagliano said. "I overheard a couple of people talking about what is proper on this river. One told the other one 'I just do whatever I want to. Nobody ever says anything.' "

While the Hernando County Sheriff's Office and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission monitor the river and nearby spring for rule breakers, several members of the public complained about visitors using drugs and alcohol, polluting, and harassing wildlife. Alcohol is prohibited at Weeki Wachee.

“The word on the river is that Hernando County is easy," Gagliano said. "We are losing the battle with destruction of our natural resources. Supply law enforcement with the tools and knowledge to make them effective presence on the water.”

Commission chairman John Mitten said stakeholders need to propose education, regulation and ways to hold people accountable.

"If you're able to do that, you'll get the performance over time that you need," Mitten said. "It's just not an immediate switch. You're dealing with a lot of different components, a lot of different players outside, inside the county, etc."

Other players include the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which partnered with the county to commission the study.

My main role for WUSF is to report on climate change and the environment, while taking part in NPR’s High-Impact Climate Change Team. I’m also a participant of the Florida Climate Change Reporting Network.