Summer is coming, and so are the hordes of people drawn to the cool, clear water of the Weeki Wachee River. What kayakers, tubers and paddleboard pilots will find is a river experience that comes with a few new suggestions.
Not hard-and-fast rules, but more public guidance designed to limit environmental damage to the river, laid out in a public information campaign that has been kicked off by the Southwest Florida Water Management District (Swiftmud) in partnership with state and local officials. The Weeki Wachee River Education Campaign is running in tandem with projects and studies to restore and protect the river. The efforts are needed due to the river’s popularity and the negative impacts from thousands of visitors each year.
A carrying capacity study to set limits on the number of people who may use the river at any given time is underway now, as is stormwater diversion work at Weeki Wachee State Park to prevent runoff pollution. As that work continues, Swiftmud will soon distribute printed information with seven tips for river users. Visitors will find them at businesses such as kayak rental vendors near the river, as well as area vacation rentals, over the coming weeks. Area restaurants will receive coasters with the information printed on them. Posters and other wall art will be distributed to the area, as well. The tips also are online at www.swfwmd.state.fl.us. Search Weeki Wachee.
Initial impact studies have identified one of the biggest problems is that the river, one of the state’s premier natural resources, is being overutilized during the warm months of the year when thousands visit. For those wondering how people floating on a river are damaging it, the analysis shows people are not just floating. They are beaching boats, trampling plant life, swinging from trees and splashing down violently. Many go over the sides of their boats and tubes to stand or walk on the bottom, disturbing it, redistributing sand and silt, and damaging aquatic plants.
“The purpose of this campaign is to educate visitors of their ecological impacts when on the river,” said Michelle Sager, lead communications coordinator. “A healthy river benefits all river users; this truly is a community effort to protect the Weeki Wachee River, and working together we can find the right balance of solutions.”
The seven tips being promoted in the campaign are aimed at humans, but people aren’t the only threat to the Weeki Wachee.
Summer rains wash into the river, carrying debris, fertilizers and other pollutants. The project at the headspring will help, and another, at Rogers Park down-river, involved stormwater diversion systems being installed. A special, porous blacktop replaced the existing drive and parking area. The new asphalt allows rainwater to soak through into the ground rather than flow into the river.
The Swiftmud tips river users are being urged to follow are:
1. Stay in the vessel when possible.
2. If you have to leave the vessel, tie off in shallow waters.
3. Avoid docking on riverbanks.
4. Don't trample vegetation or kick up silt.
5. Avoid climbing on banks and walking on sand point bars.
6. Don't climb trees or use rope swings.
7. Don't throw out litter or leave anything behind.
These are not hard rules or laws that will be enforced, said Susanna Martinez Tarokh, public information officer for the district, but are “best practices” guidelines it is hoped will be taken to heart.