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Weeki Wachee boaters will face stricter regulations with river being 'loved to death'

 Boy jumping into a river
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
Swimmers dive into the Weeki Wachee as boaters moor their kayaks along the shore.

The rules will prohibit boaters from mooring or beaching their vessels in a roughly six-mile stretch from Weeki Wachee State Park to the popular Rogers Park boat ramp.

State environmental regulators approved a rule Wednesday that will bar boaters from mooring or anchoring in the most popular stretch of the Weeki Wachee River.

The move was made because the river's banks are becoming severely eroded from people leaving their vessels and trampling the shoreline.

Members of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission unanimously approved the new rules without comment Wednesday at their board meeting in St. Petersburg.

Michael McGrath, with the Florida Springs Council, supports the restrictions.

"I think that, like a lot of folks, we realize that Weeki Wachee is being loved to death," McGrath told commissioners. "Frankly, because people just don't realize some of the impacts that they do with their recreational activities when they get out of their vessels and they trample some of the submerged aquatic vegetation."

"And it's really night and day, when you look at the boundaries from the state park and when you get outside the boundaries of the state park to where it's more privately owned," McGrath said. "And there is a lot less submerged aquatic vegetation there, and it's because they don't have that same protection. So that's just anecdotal evidence that these things do work, when we have those rules in place."

But several opponents told commissioners that existing rules are not being enforced. And they said keeping people from mooring boats to swim in the spring-fed river would be difficult — if not impossible.

Steve Knapp is a resident of Weeki Wachee. He says the culprit is not enforcing the rules that are already on the books.

"I was in aquaculture all my life, and that's one thing that has been failed by DEP (state Department of Environmental Protection), Swiftmud (Southwest Florida Water Management District), the county and the state," Knapp said. "There's been no best management practices on the river, and this solution is not going to solve anything."

 Manatee and boaters
Steve Newborn
A manatee with boat propeller scars on its back searches for food among kayakers in the river.

The commission had originally proposed barring boats from mooring at 20 points in the river. But a study revealed photographs where boats and kayaks had beached and grounded outside of those zones.

"These vessels were doing harm to aquatic-dependent species of plants and were contributing to the harm of the shoreline," said Maj. Rob Beaton, with the commission's law enforcement division. "It has been demonstrated that anchoring, mooring, beaching and grounding is occurring along the entirety of the spring run."

He noted a previous study by Hernando County that said 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.

 map of spring protection zone
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Map of the spring protection zone

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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