BROOKSVILLE — A new kayak landing spot in the Weekiwachee Preserve, more training for those who rent the popular watercraft, stepped-up enforcement of river protections and some political pressure to urge the state to reduce launches and study just how much is too much traffic on the Weeki Wachee River. Those were just some of the latest suggestions on how to handle growing pressure on the popular coastal destination.
Packing the Hernando County Commission meeting this week, local residents vented about how crowded the river has become. A video displayed by one resident showed kayakers clumsily colliding with a pontoon boat — something the residents said now happens frequently, putting the natural system and the safety of both residents and visitors at risk.
Weeki Wachee resident Paul Vermeulen urged the commission to act, explaining that his neighbors have become so frustrated with the river crowding and safety issues that they are selling their boats, their kayaks and their floating tubes.
"All of us living on the river can't even enjoy the river anymore,'' Vermeulen said.
The county legal staff explained that jurisdiction over the river is largely out of their hands, resting instead with state agencies. But residents persisted, urging the commission to exercise its political clout to control zoning violations where kayak launches shouldn't be happening, enforcing land-use rules on a paddleboard business located in a neighborhood, and urging meaningful action by state agencies.
Commissioners agreed to discuss the issue further after county staffers can do some research and bring back answers to the questions residents posed as to what authority the county can exercise. They said they would like to help where they can.
Weeki Wachee Gardens resident Roy Johnson suggested that the county could talk to the Southwest Florida Water Management District about pulling boats that are launched at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park out of the river from the preserve and not at Rogers Park, avoiding a congested area of the river.
Johnson also noted that, while County Administrator Len Sossamon touted new recreational facilities the county is looking to add at the Hernando Beach water tower and at Anderson Snow Park, people crowd the Weeki Wachee River because they want to be on the river.
Commission Chairman Wayne Dukes said the river will never be the same as it was before so many tourists discovered it.
"You're never going to be able to stop the attraction of a beautiful blue river,'' he said.
Other residents said visitors need to learn how to operate kayaks properly and need to be told not to pull the craft onto shorelines, where they stomp down vegetation and add to the erosion that is clogging the waterway. Others spoke about the need for more signs, including regular reminders that alcohol is not allowed on the river.
Fritz Musselmann, a retired former land manager with the water management district, urged the commission to push for a formal study of how much boat traffic the river can be expected to handle, a long-recommended carrying capacity study. He noted that Swiftmud has committed to paying up to half of the cost, and he would like to see the county pay a quarter and push the state Department of Environmental Protection to pay the rest.
"Take some ownership in this. Demonstrate that as a County Commission that you really do want to see the river protected going forward,'' Musselmann said. "I am hopeful the results of that study can be used by the County Commission to implement some sort of regulations on the river.
"At least then you have a basis for adopting ordinances or regulations, and so do the Fish and Wildlife Service and the DEP."