Shallow Waters-Deep Discoveries on the Weeki Wachee River
A light breeze tickled the leaves of the trees and brushed over my bare arms. Overhead, birds darted across a brilliant blue sky. I could still see the Shoal Line Boulevard Bridge, but the rest of the world had yet to get moving.
Unless you are an early riser, cool and quiet are not always the words you’d hear to describe the Weeki Wachee River these days. One of the Florida Adventure Coast’s busiest recreation spots, on this morning the river was indeed a place of early morning serenity in Hernando County.
The Weeki Wachee River begins its journey from a first magnitude spring at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, home of the world-famous Weeki Wachee mermaids. Several springs along its 7.4-mile run feed the river during the winding path to the Gulf of Mexico at Bayport.
We launched our kayaks from the Kayak Shack, located across from Roger’s Park, to paddle upstream. My editor and friend, Nature Coaster Diane Bedard, and I paddled beside our guides, SWIM Program Manager Vivianna Bendixson and Lead Communications Coordinator Michele Sager, to discuss the findings of the recent Weeki Wachee River Southwest Florida Water Management District study of human impact and sediment buildup along the river.
Our kayaks slid over the clear blue-green waters, affording us a view of the white sandy riverbed. This portion of the lower Weeki Wachee River, a point known as WW4 in the study, is the most heavily affected section of the river. It runs from Roger’s Park to a mile upriver. One side of the river remains wild, over-grown with vegetation and trees, while the other side is residential with houses, seawalls, weekend rentals, and channel entrances erected and dug out over the years.
The water ran shallow. Too shallow. A girl paddled past us, then stopped. She got out of her kayak and walked, pulling her boat behind her through the ankle-deep water. We paddled past boathouses and docks, high and dry, waiting for a tide- or a miracle.
“Was this normal?” I wondered, taking in the low water levels all around.
Shallow Water-Deep Discoveries
Vivianna took the lead in discussing the study findings, including the fact that recreational paddlers were a major cause for impact issues on the river. While imagining all those motor boaters fist bumping out there at this, her news secretly horrified me. Didn’t people use kayaks so as not to wreak havoc on the ecosystems? Environmentally friendly travel?
But before I hung up my paddle and retired my kayak, I wanted to hear more.
The Carrying Capacity Study took place between July 2018 and June 2019. It found that only 2% of users on the Weeki Wachee River used motorboats, while a whopping 87% paddled in kayaks. So, it was not necessarily the mode, but the amount.
In 2018, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced it was limiting launches to 280 individuals a day from Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. To aid in this capacity cap, reservations are required to launch not only rentals but also even private kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards from the park. There are only controls on launches from Weeki Wachee State park.
The study discovered that about 40% more recreational river users paddle upstream from the Roger’s Park area.
But What Damage Can a Kayak Do?
Floating boats are not the cause of concern though. They are merely pieces of plastic that float, but the damage is caused by the people in them. The innocent act of pulling a vessel onto the shore can tear up vegetation- a vital component to keeping the embankment intact.
Vivianna pointed out the exposed roots of the trees hugging the embankment. The water swirled around the bare roots on its journey to the sea. Roots from trees and vegetation act like a net, helping to hold soil in place. A day’s worth of trampling effectively kills the vegetation underfoot.
The solution? Avoid docking on riverbanks. However, the erosion is caused not only by humans stopping for a break in their paddles but also by a changing river and tides.
And like above, so below. Under the water, small patches of aquatic grasses sprout from the sandy riverbed. The grasses provide food and shelter for native fish. Loss of this vital flora results in loss of fish and manatee habitats. The accumulation of sand on the riverbed prevents these aquatic plants from growing, as does foot traffic.
When walking and swimming, steer clear of the grasses as you would shoreline vegetation.
Sand, Sand & More Sand
Michele pointed out the sandy beach area under a sea wall. It extended into the river. “These are sand point bars.”
Sand point bars form when sediments build up in a section of the river, usually in a bend. Over time, this area will collect more and more sand and silt from the river’s current. The side where the sand gathers is shallow, while the opposite side of the sandbar will have a deep dip. While these sand point bars on the Weeki Wachee River look like the ultimate party zone spot, their formations are causing the river to change course, eroding the opposing riverbanks.
The sand point bars on this lower portion of the Weeki may have formed from sand and sediments that have washed into the river upstream from developed sites. One local theorized that incoming tides and storm surges, such as the one from Hurricane Hermine, may also have contributed to the problematic sand build-up in the river.
The resulting accumulation of sand on the point bars and in the river has left many shallows and a narrower channel. It becomes cumbersome for manatees to navigate and also boat owners.
During our paddle we witnessed a family in a motorboat grow frustrated as they continued to get stuck at several points in the river. The SWFWMD website suggests it is best for kayakers to keep to the shallower waters so that motor vessels can stick to the deeper channel and leave less of an impact.
The sand point bars and sediment buildup in the river and how they affect the environment are key issues addressed by SWIM- the SWFWMD Surface Water Improvement and Management Plan, which includes the Weeki Wachee River.
In 2021, the State approved funding to dredge the 1.6 miles of the lower Weeki Wachee River. The project is slated for summer 2021- after the summer season and before manatees begin their migrations to the spring areas to escape the cold waters of winter.
The plan is to dredge sand and silt up to 5-feet below the waterline. Any rocks and rock beds discovered will not be dug out.
As part of the channel restoration plan, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park opened a takeout point 2.8 miles downriver from their launch site. Visitors can complete the new river paddle within 2 hours. This helps ease the crowding on the river. They are also implementing measures to prevent sand from flowing downstream.
Crowds & Solutions
We reached Hospital Hole, a 135-foot-deep spring on the river. Colorful kayaks began to arrive, filling the area, drawn to the manatees frolicking in the deep water.
“There’s too many people here,” I said to Diane. “Can you imagine what the weekends are like?”
As many locals and returning visitors can attest, crowding on this popular recreational river has been a problem for a long time.
The Bayport-Linda Pederson Park Paddling Trail
To help lure visitors from the river, the county introduced a second recreational paddle trail, the Bay Port-Linda Pedersen Park Paddling Trail.
At the Gulf end of the Weeki Wachee and Mudd River, this trail provides avid paddlers the opportunity to enjoy their sport, while easing the strain from the Weeki Wachee River.
We returned to the Kayak Shack, a little wetter and a little wiser.
SWFWMD Creates Educational Materials to Help Save the Weeki Wachee River’s Health
Knowledge is power, and the SWFWMD Team has set out on a mission to spread the word and educate in-coming visitors about how they can lessen their impact on the Weeki Wachee River. Their info-coasters, lanyards, and posters can be found in local businesses and accommodations in the area and beyond. They encourage visitors and tourists to enjoy the river while respecting nature.
What Can You Do?
As a Nature Coaster, one joy of residing in the area may include a trip down the Weeki Wachee with friends. Restructure your time to avoid holidays and plan for early morning paddles on a weekday. If you are launching from Weeki Wachee State Park, remember that reservations are required even for private launches.
No one really likes crowds anyway 😉.
Stay in your vessel (it is a law in the State Park zone anyway) and avoid docking on banks or trampling vegetation – in or out of the water. And as always, don’t trash where you splash. Take everything you brought during your trip out with you.
Too crowded? Consider the Coastal Paddling Trail and return during a less busy time.
Let’s all do our part- treasure the great beauty of Florida’s natural places and help to keep them for future generations to enjoy.
- https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/344/486/2303620 /