HERNANDO COUNTY, Fla. — Sheli Thomas and her daughter live in Clermont, just minutes from Disney, but their magic kingdom is an hour away in Hernando County.
Thomas, who has made it her mission to visit every Florida spring, is forever mesmerized by the beauty of Weeki Wachee Springs.
“Pristine Florida. Real Florida. Crystal clear, beautiful water,” she said. “Just beautiful nature.”
Tuesday, the mother-daughter duo spent the day kayaking the spring-fed river.
“The water was absolutely gorgeous,” Thomas said afterward as she loaded their boats onto the roof of her SUV. “It did seem [clearer].”
Soon, the water of the natural attraction could become even clearer and cleaner because of what happened across town — at the Spring Hill Water Reclamation Facility — at the same time Thomas and her daughter paddled the spring run.
Hernando County leaders and others participated in a valve closing ceremony to mark the closure of the facility, which is located behind the Walmart Supercenter on US Highway 19.
The county closed the facility, which had been in operation since 1967 because it was ultimately sending water rich with nitrogen into spring.
Nitrogen and other types of nutrient pollution can cause algae to bloom in springs like Weeki Wachee.
According to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, “large amounts of algae growth can cause reduced water clarity and extreme fluctuations in dissolved oxygen, which is stressful to aquatic life.”
Hernando County said the water reclaimed at the Spring Hill site will now be sent to another facility near the airport, where newer technology will scrub more of the nitrogen from reclaimed water before it is used to irrigate a local golf course.
Utilities Director Gordon Onderdonk estimates that the closure of the Spring Hill facility will remove 46,000 pounds of nitrogen from Weeki Wachee Springs each year.
“The Basin Management Action Plan that was created for Weeki Wachee Spring set a 20-year goal of removing roughly 195,000 pounds of nitrogen per year,” he explained. “So, this is approximately…one-fourth there just from removing this one project right here, so it’s a great accomplishment.”
According to Onderdonk, closing the valve in Spring Hill is not the only solution Hernando County is deploying to improve the spring’s health.
A separate project will convert hundreds of homes not far from the spring from septic tanks to a central sewer system. According to the Basin Management Action Plan for Weeki Wachee Springs, septic tanks account for the spring’s largest source of nitrogen pollution.
Hernando County has also asked 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 along a roughly 5-mile span of the river.
The zone would be enforced by county law enforcement.
To Thomas, the efforts are both good and bad.
While she applauds efforts to remove nitrogen pollution from Weeki Wachee Springs, she believes the Spring Protection Zone would hinder her ability to enjoy the natural gem.
“Conservation is important,” she said. “I’m 100% on conservation, but we have to be able to enjoy this because otherwise, what’s the purpose.”
Others, though, believe the protection zone is needed to prevent the spring from being loved to death.
As ABC Action News documented last year, 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.
According to County Administrator Jeff Rogers, the FWC will host another public input session in February before making a decision on the Springs Protection Zone for Weeki Wachee Springs.
Rogers believes FWC’s decision could come in May, and he’s confident the agency will grant the county’s request for a Springs Protection Zone.