Posted on June 28, 2023
The Southwest Florida Water Management District has begun a long-delayed dredging project on the Weeki Wachee River. The project, which stretches almost 1.5 miles upriver from Rogers Park, began last June but was halted after only a few weeks of work.
The original contractor, Gator Dredging, quickly found themselves at odds with the District over their inability to maintain the water quality standards called for in the contract. The District ultimately terminated the contract with Gator Dredging and reached a new agreement with Sea and Shoreline LLC to complete the work called for in the original $2.1 million contract.
Taking a different approach to maintaining water quality, Sea and Shoreline employs a technique known as “hand dredging,” which involves a diver dredging the sand in the river channel with a vacuum hose. While the approach is a bit more tedious, it results in the river remaining clear, clean, and open for recreational use during the project. Sand from the river bottom is pumped to a county-owned lot about one-half mile south of Rogers Park via a large diameter hose that runs the entire length of the project.
According to Janie Hagberg, project manager for the Weeki Wachee Channel Restoration Project, the dredging will follow the original river channel and provide for a channel that is about five feet deeper than the mean low tide water level and twenty feet wide.
The project was planned after homeowners and boaters complained about the decreasing depth of the river, and environmental studies noted a marked decrease in plant life. Both issues directly affect the manatees, which swim upriver every winter, seeking warmer water as the Gulf of Mexico cools. Manatees feed off of the submerged grass in the river.
Government agencies and environmentalists attribute the channel filling with sand to Increasing public use of the river, as well as beach replenishment at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and Rogers Park. The sand leaves the river only a few inches deep in some spots and covers areas where submerged grass and vegetation should be growing. This limits the manatees’ food supply, as well as their ability to swim upriver.
As the river has grown more shallow, it has widened, further eroding vegetation on the shoreline. Compounding the problem is increasing public use of the river for recreation. Environmentalists say that shorelines and vegetation are being destroyed by boaters and kayakers who often pull their boats onto the shoreline or get out of their boats and walk through the submerged grass.
The Fish and Wildlife Commission plans to present a proposed final rule to establish a Springs Protection Zone at their July 19-20 Commission meeting. If enacted, the rule would restrict the beaching, mooring, anchoring, and grounding of vessels on the Weeki Wachee River, extending from the headspring within Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to the Rogers Park Boat Ramp. The portion of the river within the state park already has such a restriction in place.
The proposed ruling states that the protection zone would not apply to property owners along the Weeki Wachee River for the purpose of docking their personal vessels on water adjacent to their property.
The original FWC proposal only restricted the beaching, mooring, anchoring, and grounding of vessels at several point bars on the river. ( Point bars on a river are located on the interior of a river bend. As water flows into the curve, it slows down and deposits sediment onto the river bed, which accumulates and creates a point bar.) The Board of County Commissioners felt that the proposed restrictions did not go far enough and supported setting the restrictions from the southern end of the state park to the boat ramp at Roger’s Park.
What activities will be allowed on the river?
Hernando Sun sent the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission the following questions about what activities will still be allowed on the river under the proposed ruling.
• Will people be allowed to go down the river in tubes? If yes, can people get out of their tube and walk or swim with their tube?
• Will people be allowed to get out of their boats? If yes, can they swim alongside their boat? Do they need to be tethered to their boat?
• Will property owners be allowed to swim in the river or walk in the river?
• Will visitors be allowed to walk or swim in the river?
• Can two boats be moored together and float down the river?
The agency sent the following response:
The proposed Spring Protection Zone would not alter the public’s access to the spring or the spring’s associated spring runs. The proposed Springs Protection Zone for Weeki Wachee Spring would prohibit anchoring, mooring, beaching, and grounding to protect the spring and associated spring run from the Roger’s Park boat ramp to the spring boil.
The proposed zone would only prohibit mooring, grounding, anchoring or beaching of vessels. Tubes and rafts are not considered vessels in Florida.
The proposed zone would not regulate the behavior of people (walking, swimming, etc.), only the mooring, grounding, anchoring or beaching of vessels.