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River task force to meet in next three weeks

The group will first identify environmental concerns on the Weeki Wachee River.

By JENNIFER FARRELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 14, 2001


WEEKI WACHEE -- Concerned residents banded together last year to take on a laundry list of problems they saw on the Weeki Wachee River: namely, reckless and speeding motorboats; manatee harassment; alcohol consumption; litter; and sediment accumulation.

But when word of the group, organized with the help of former County Commissioner Paul Sullivan, spread, critics complained that its motivation was largely political and aimed chiefly at banning motorboats. Meetings during election season were flooded with angry citizens afraid that the task force would successfully lobby for tighter restrictions while an unsuspecting public sat by.

In an effort to address concerns and ensure a balanced approach, county commissioners in February approved formalizing the effort by appointing a new task force made up of residents, business owners, government officials and representatives of environmentalist organizations.

Now, as the height of summer boating season approaches, the task force is expected to hold its first meeting in the next three weeks.

At the top of its agenda will be identifying a range of environmental concerns, then developing a strategy to protect the river.

Commission Chairman Chris Kingsley said low water levels and heavy boat traffic combine to make river conditions dangerous.

"People are smacking into each other," he said. "It's just out of control from what I understand."

Whether the group will push for stricter enforcement of existing laws or back increased regulation remains to be seen.

"Everybody's pretty much aware that there are problems," Kingsley said. "It's just basically to see if there's anything the county can do to alleviate the problems there, or perceived to be there."

Dave Lowerre, owner of Weeki Wachee Canoe Rental, said conditions have grown worse with time.

"The river is a very dangerous place on weekends," he said. "Most ordinances in effect to protect public safety are routinely ignored by most of the users on the river, including many of my customers."

Lowerre, who said he does not support banning motorboats, said he would prefer to see tighter enforcement of no-wake rules and a new ordinance outlawing disposable containers (for food and drinks). "There's a similar ordinance in effect on the Rainbow River, and it's beautiful and clean."

Don Fish, vice president of Hernando Environmental Land Protectors, said the task force is a good way to build consensus on environmental issues.

"This task force has all the proper people in place to address all the elements and try to find solutions," he said.

He added, "This area is the crown jewel of Hernando County. There aren't too many places like it left. We've got to take care of it."

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