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A dredging project at Weeki Wachee aims to help boaters and manatees

Helmeted divers vacuum sediment from the river's bottom.
Steve Newborn
WUSF Public Media
Helmeted divers vacuum sediment from the river's bottom.

Our small boat motors alongside a pipe that snakes along the bottom of the storied Weeki Wachee. It curves under floating manatees, scores of kayakers and other boaters for one and a half miles upstream from the Rogers Park boat dock.

A dredging pump hums and breathes above helmeted divers, who hold the flexible hose, vaccuming up all that accumulated sediment.

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Janie Hagberg is a chief engineer with the Southwest Florida Water Management District's SWIM(Surface Water Improvement and Management) program.

"Before the dredging, the sediments were much more shallow, so there's more of a pronounced channel," she said during a tour of the river. "It's harder to see from the surface, where we are right now. But definitely beneath the water, you would be able to tell."
Hagberg said a combination of high tides from the gulf and all those feet trampling the shoreline causes the sediments to settle into the fast-flowing channel, which starts at the Weeki Wachee Springs further inland, where mermaids perform daily for guests.

"The sedimentation smothers beneficial submerged aquatic vegetation that's important for those river bottom habitats and ecological function," she said. "It also impacts the ability of manatee passage upriver, especially at low tide.

Weeki Wachee River Channel Restoration Media

The water district is working on the $2.1 million project to clear the channel so boaters can continue to traverse it, along with the sea cows who flock to the river's 72-degree waters.
Madison Trowbridge, a springs scientist with the water district, says they're passing out information pamplets with several ways boaters and kayakers who love gliding along the crystalline river can do their part. That means staying in their boats, not trampling vegetation and kicking up silt, and not diving off trees and rope swings.

"We want to make sure that we have the same experience that we're giving to our children and our great-grandchildren, and just to make sure that we are preserving this beautiful river as much as we can," she said.

The dredging project started in May and is expected to be complete in about a year.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission had proposed barring the mooring of watercraftalong 20 sandbarsin the river. They cited a springs protection ordinance that shows they have to prove that boaters are harming that stretch of the river.

But Commission Chairman Rodney Barreto instead said they will try to revise that rule and come closer to Hernando County's proposal to ban boat moorings along a roughly two-mile stretch between Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and the Rogers Park boat ramp.

Wildlife commissioners plan to revisit the issue at their next meeting, on July 19th.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7.

Steve Newborn is WUSF's assistant news director as well as a reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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