Weeki Wachee advocates want restrictions before the river is 'loved to death'
On Thursday, state environmental officials will vote on new restrictions for people mooring boats in the Weeki Wachee River. But many people in the area think that's not enough to prevent its sand banks from eroding.
The Weeki Wachee River is where the Florida of the past flows headfirst into the Florida of the present.
It has mermaids and manatees with propeller scars.
Water the color of emeralds rumbles under a crush of boats, pontoons and kayakers.
On its south banks, bald cypress, palms and oaks tower over a wildlife management area.
To the north, homes with protruding docks bear signs advertising vacation rentals.
The Weeki Wachee, many local residents say, is being loved to death.
'A mere shadow of its former self'
George Foster drives about a mile through pristine forest, then gets out of his pickup to walk over a fallen tree. The sound of music from partying boaters hits you first, before you can see the crush of boaters on a Sunday afternoon.
Foster, who owns an environmental consulting firm in Brooksville, co-owns a large, undeveloped lot on the north shore of the Weeki Wachee.
"I've lived here all my life," Foster said. "And this river is a mere shadow of its former self. It's nothing like it was when I was a kid. Nothing."
It's just another weekend when he walks to the riverbank and points to boaters moored on a sandbar that’s getting bigger as the shoreline erodes at the foot of his property.
"I've lived here all my life. And this river is a mere shadow of its former self. It's nothing like it was when I was a kid. Nothing."George Foster
"The edge of the river went out at least 20 feet — maybe 25 feet — beyond where it goes today, just five years ago," Foster said. "Now, everybody just crashes their boats into the banks, canoes, kayaks, whatever, party here, crawl out ... you know, just abuse the hell out of it."
Foster points to a pair of men’s underwear hanging from a tree branch on his property.
He says there's not a blade of eelgrass that manatees feed on left in this stretch of the river.
How to restrict boaters
Foster supports Hernando County's proposal to ban boaters from anchoring or leaving their watercraft. The ban would cover roughly two miles between the boundary of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park — where mermaids have frolicked in the water for75 years — to the popular Rogers Park boat ramp.
Not so fast, the state said. Instead, it wants to make 20 sandbars in that stretch off-limits to mooring.
"If you ban the people from the point bars, they're not going to go home, they're just going to move their party down the river, up the river, to a place that's legal, and destroy that part of the river," Foster said. "So it's just stupid to think that you can limit activity to certain areas on the river. The whole river's got to have the same protection."
John Allocco, chairman of the Hernando County Commission, has been pushing for a plan that would do just that.
"There is nobody who can honestly look at this plan that's been given forth after ours was denied — and Florida Fish and Wildlife modified it — there's nobody that can look at this and think that it's enforceable or that it will actually do anything to protect the springs," said Allocco.
The Hernando County study says the river is getting so much use that shorelines are eroding, as people get out of their boats and trample sand bars. The sand is flowing into the middle of the river, making it too shallow in places for manatees to glide. And trees are falling into the river because of the erosion.
When asked for comment, officials with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission referred to their proposal. There, they acknowledged that prohibiting mooring at the 20 sandbars could cause people to moor outside that zone — meaning they might have to "revisit" the rule in the future.
Allocco said they're stating the obvious.
"So there's a sign that says you can't moor on this point bar," Allocco said. "So what are you going to do? You're going moor adjacent to it and walk on to the point bar. So you're just destroying it."
Protecting the river ... and the manatees
The county is working with state officials in other ways to protect the river. Allocco says millions are being spent to hook up thousands of homes with septic tanks in the river basin to a central sewage system. This would reduce the amount of nutrients flowing into the river in an effort to reduce algae blooms that darken the otherwise gin-clear springs.
"There's so many other things that we're spending money on to protect this river. And what's the point of spending all this money to protect the river if you're not going to actually protect the river?" Allocco said.
John Prout says he’s been enjoying the river for over 20 years. Recently, he says he's seen a lot more manatees here than in decades past — even though the seagrasses they feed on are being trampled by feet and smothered by algae.
A short visit to the river yielded views of three manatees — a mother and her baby, and another one bearing propeller scars.
Prout is hanging out on the dock of the residence he shares with other renters. Behind him and his friend William Vislocky, there’s a sign on the dock dubbing it the No Tell River Hotel. Behind are signs saying "nude beach" and "manatee spear rentals."
Prout says he wants as many people as possible to enjoy the river — just like he has for decades.
"A lot of these people that have been here for a long time. They were used to it being more peaceful and not as many people out here, not as much chaos," Prout said. "And that's great and all, but things change. And now there's more people here. And they want an excuse to get rid of them. They don't want the people here. They want it all to themselves."
Allocco says the county’s plan doesn’t restrict people from enjoying the river; it protects it for future generations. If the state moves forward with its proposal at Thursday’s meeting, he says he’ll appeal to state lawmakers.