WEEKI WACHEE, Fla. — Gliding over the shallow, crystal-clear turquoise water of the Weeki Wachee River, Madison Trowbridge’s kayak seemed like it was floating on air.
“I try to keep to the side because sometimes, a manatee will pop up,” said Trowbridge, a springs scientist with the Southwest Florida Water Management District who earned a Ph.D. from the University of South Florida studying microbiology of the river.
It’s a river she visits often for both work and pleasure.
“I’m always taken away by its beauty every time I come out here,” said Trowbridge.
Plenty of others share that love for the Weeki Wachee River.
In fact, since the pandemic began, Trowbridge and others have noticed a trend: more and more visitors are flocking to the river, on Florida’s “Nature Coast” in Hernando County, for paddlesports, fishing, and other types of recreation.
The spring-fed river — lined by cypress trees and palms — is often home to manatees and hovers around a refreshing 72° year-round. On a long list of Florida’s ecotourism destinations, the Weeki Wachee River is a natural gem.
However, as Trowbridge and others have noticed the increase in visitors and the river’s growing popularity, they’ve also noticed a decline in the river’s health.
Rope swings are bending and snapping trees. Some paddlers are beaching their kayaks, canoes, and boats and, as a result, eroding the delicate river banks. Visitors’ feet are trampling and injuring plants both above the water and below it, including eelgrass, which is a precious food source for manatees.
The erosion and loss of vegetation are so extreme that large “sand point bars” continue to grow along the river’s edge. Though some visitors assume they’re natural features — and an ideal location to gather and relax — Trowbridge said they represent a loss of plants and the river’s declining health.
“I think everybody loves this river, and I think a lot of us don’t realize that what we’re doing can harm the river,” she said.
A Feb. 2020 study conducted by the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Hernando County linked river recreation with “environmental degradation” and, along with public outcry about the river’s worsening conditions, led county commissioners to seek change.
In February, citing data in the study, Hernando County Commissioners used a relatively-new state statute — which County Administrator Jeff Rodgers said was drawn up by lawmakers from the area — to ask the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) to designate a stretch of the Weeki Wachee River as a Springs Protection Zone.
Such a designation would drastically change what is and isn’t allowed on the river. If approved, it would aim to stop visitors from getting out of their boats to swim or walk on riverbanks, sand point bars, or the river bottom by prohibiting virtually all banking and anchoring of kayaks, canoes, and other boats.
The zone would be enforced by county law enforcement.
“I am proud of the tough decision that the Board of County Commissioners made to preserve the long-term natural beauty of the Weeki Wachee River for all future generations to follow,” Rodgers wrote in a Feb. news release. “I believe this will be looked upon as one of the best decisions that the Hernando County government has provided the leadership to make.”
Right now, according to Rodgers, FWC is in the process of reviewing the request. A public hearing will likely be held in May or June before a decision might come in July.
In the meantime, Trowbridge and the Southwest Florida Water Management District are asking visitors to be better stewards of the river voluntarily.
The district’s newest campaign asks them to follow seven tips:
- Stay in your vessel when possible.
- If you have to leave your vessel, tie off in shallow waters.
- Avoid docking on riverbanks.
- Don't trample vegetation or kick up silt.
- Avoid climbing on banks and walking on sand point bars.
- Don't climb trees or use rope swings.
- Don't throw out litter or leave anything behind.
Signs with the tips have been posted around the area, including by at least one homeowner who lives on the river’s edge. Marketing materials with tips have also been provided to vacation rentals and kayak rental companies.
Trowbridge said public buy-in has been good, and there have been some signs that the campaign is working.
“I don’t have children yet, but I hope that what we’re doing today can make sure that we are setting up for our children and our children’s children to have the same experience or better when they’re out here,” she said, as dappled sunlight danced on the gentle water around her kayak. “You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.”
Learn more about how you can help the Southwest Florida Water Management District preserve the Weeki Wachee River at this link.