Monday, May 24, 2021

Weeki Wachee Preserve - An Open Letter

The Hernando Board of County Commissioners is proposing to build a six-mile long “Aquatic Preserve boardwalk” inside the confines of the 11,206-acre Weeki Wachee Preserve purchased in 1995 using Florida Forever (State) funds. The property was acquired specifically to preserve the very significant environmental values of western Hernando County. This is an open letter to the Hernando County Board of County Commissioners and Administrator; the Board of Governors of the Southwest Florida Water Management District and Executive Director; the Secretary of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, and Florida Senator Wilton Simpson suggesting such a thought is unwise and setting forth the reasons why.

May 17, 2021

To: Hernando County Board of County Commissioners

Commissioner John Allocco, Chair

Commissioner Steve Champion, Vice Chair

Commissioner Jeff Holcomb, Second Vice Chair

Commissioner Wayne Dukes

Commissioner Elizabeth Narverud

County Administrator Jeff Rogers

Governing Board of the Southwest Florida Water Management District

Member Kelly S. Rice, Chair

Member Joel Schleicher, Vice Chair

Member Rebecca Smith, Secretary

Member James G. Murphy, Treasurer

Member Ed Armstrong

Member Ashley Bell Barnett

Member Jack Bispham

Member Roger Germann

Member John Mitten

Member Seth Weigtman

Member Michelle Williamson

Executive Director Brian Armstrong

Secretary Noah Valenstein, Florida Department of Environmental Protection

Senator Wilton Simpson

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen,

Having read recently that Hernando County Board of County Commissioners is considering a so-called six-mile boardwalk from the Weeki Wachee Preserve in western Hernando County to Pedersen Park, and having received calls from Hernando Beach residents opposing the idea, here are a few thoughts for your consideration.

It is understandable how this unique property might seem attractive as a location for Hernando Beach residents who wish to have greater access to it. But, given the Preserve’s history which is directly related to Florida’s decades-long and nationally recognized program to protect its unique natural systems from the inevitable impacts of Florida’s continuing population growth, increased public usage and particularly construction of a six-mile long “boardwalk” large enough to allow significant hiking and biking, is problematic.

Everyone wants sustained economic growth and people world-wide want to live here, but most folks already here also want a balance between the loss of natural habitat that’s already occurring and the need to protect the rest from what will inevitably come with all that “love.” The growing realization is that if we do not preserve a large part of what’s left of Florida’s natural habitat, it will simply be exploited and “used” until it is no more and the very reasons why Florida has become a global destination in the first place will be lost along with it. I’m reminded of the “Tragedy of the Commons” and the phrase, “death by a thousand cuts”, further defined as, “the way a major negative change, which happens slowly in many unnoticed increments, is not perceived as objectionable” (Wikipedia).

Recent arrivals to our state simply may not appreciate all the hard lessons learned from past decisions and the energy and capital that previous and current residents have invested in implementing the state’s historic environmental protection programs that were carefully evolved as a result over the last 50 years. It remains a continuous struggle to maintain public awareness and appreciation for the critical importance that Florida’s natural systems hold for the state’s economy. Not all land in its natural state, or that hosts environmentally significant flora and/or fauna, for example, should be considered appropriate for a public facility just because it’s already owned by the public, it’s beautiful, and it’s environmentally bountiful.

In Florida, public education is ephemeral. Our population is always moving on or dying and being replaced by newcomers. Thus, maintaining effective appreciation for those hard lessons learned is difficult. It is an unfortunate reality about Florida that its demography is continuously renewing and changing while the critical importance of Florida’s natural environment to its economic future is growing as more of it is lost to development.

The 11,206-acre Weeki Wachee Preserve was purchased by the Southwest Florida Water Management District in 1995 from W. L. Cobb Construction Company for $15.1 million. Six years later in 2001 while I was executive director at SWFWMD, the property surrounding Weeki Wachee Springs was purchased from the City of St. Petersburg. (For years, ownership of this property by St. Pete was a very painful bone of contention for the residents of Hernando County because the City had acquired it in the 1930’s as a potential water supply source.) The springs parcel of about 400 acres was purchased for around $16 million as part of then-Governor Bush’s “Springs Initiative” using funds from the State’s Florida Forever program. Today, both acquisitions remain as important components of the state’s strategy to acquire, restore, and protect Florida’s inventory of iconic springs, which are not duplicated in such concentration anywhere else in the world. Florida’s springs are part of its globally unique natural heritage, much as the Grand Canyon is for Arizona.

The Preserve property was purchased as part of a regional system of conservation lands that extend up to the Crystal River State Park - originally known as the Crystal River Buffer Preserve - consisting of some 27,500 acres and including the southernmost coastal hardwood hammocks in western Florida. The Weeki Wachee Preserve provides a rich collage of habitats including several miles of Weeki Wachee River frontage, portions of Mud River, dense hardwood swamps, freshwater and saltwater marshes, and pine-covered sand hills. Part of why the acquisition was so important was because it would help in preventing further degradation of the groundwater flowing to Weeki Wachee Springs and because the area and its habitat is well known for its black bear population.

It is my understanding that, unfortunately, the preserve has been described as just some old leftover mining pits and those who oppose its development as an active public recreation facility are just people who are against everything. I have also heard that some believe if the county can get the six-mile “boardwalk” permitted, “other facilities” can be constructed later. It’s the old saw, if the camel can get his nose under the tent the rest of him will follow.

I can’t believe SWFWMD is going to be that na├»ve. The district has always understood, and likely still does, that there is a necessary responsibility to allow reasonable public enjoyment of its conservation properties, but within the meaning of that reasonableness is the responsibility to not allow the land to be over utilized to the extent that the original purposes for which it was purchased become obscured and no longer operative. I believe this because, early on, a careful plan for public access and use was developed by SWFWMD for every property it acquired using Florida Forever funds including the Weeki Wachee Preserve. Therefore, I believe it is not public use, per se, that is causing the growing objections to the county’s proposal. It is the potential concentration and intensity of the proposed use. The main access road from Osowaw Boulevard, for example, is smack dab through the heart of the corridor black bears need for their normal foraging, ranging and sustainment of the specie. Consequently, while the road may be marginally acceptable for maintenance purposes, it would not be acceptable as a main entrance with any anticipated heavy daily usage.

Perhaps there will be ways to allow a limited degree of public usage in the lake area, but the fact remains that the total land area was purchased and established as a Preserve for very specific reasons that are more critical today than they have ever been, and a six-mile walkway that promotes heavy human hiking and even biking from the mined lakes to Pedersen Park through what can only be described as some very sensitive natural systems is certainly contradictory to those purposes. SWFWMD clearly has an obligation to assure any proposed public uses fall within the constraints contained in the original state authorization to purchase the property using Florida Forever funds. Boardwalks can be found in many state parks but in most cases are carefully constructed to assure minimal impact on natural systems and keep related human incursion and its inevitable impacts to a carefully defined minimum.

You may know that SWFWMD has partnered on several occasions with Hernando County and the state’s park system to allow public access and use of district-owned public lands within the county such as popular Bayport Park and Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. It also instigated and locally funded, through the now dismantled Coastal Rivers Basin Board, the location and construction of an Environmental Education Center on park land just west of Weeki Wachee Springs on Bayport Road. All these facilities are located fairly close to Hernando Beach for those residents wanting to use them. If greater public usage becomes accommodated within the Weeki Wachee Preserve it will not reduce any pressures of overuse at the other facilities as has been suggested. It will only bring more visitors from out of county to negatively impact another unique and environmentally sensitive natural area of Hernando County.

There is also a mistaken notion that the reason the Preserve is under this consideration is because grant funding may be available, the land is cheap, i.e., free (SWFWMD already owns it), and it has water features. These are not valid reasons for obviating the original important purposes for which the land was acquired on behalf of Florida’s greater public, Florida’s natural environment, and Florida’s long-term economic future.

Finally, it should be noted that both houses of the 2021 Florida Legislature just adopted the Wildlife Corridor Act which would, if signed by the Governor, award $300 million to the Florida Forever land conservation program to expand and protect wildlife corridors. It was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate! Our leaders in Tallahassee clearly want wildlife corridors expanded, not developed.

I appreciate the opportunity to share these thoughts.


Sonny Vergara

Brooksville, FL 

Former Executive Director of Southwest Florida Water Management District and St. Johns River Water Management District.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

A letter for our new Governor and Legislature

Dear SWFWMDmatters
"For decades, efforts to protect and restore
Florida's waters have been significantly underfunded."
Are you as concerned and frustrated about what’s happening to Florida's natural environment as I am? Here's what you need to know about what you need to know, so you can add your voice to the growing number of folks who are demanding our new Governor and Legislature take real action this session to protect Florida’s natural future. It doesn’t matter a whit what party you belong to. I’m a Republican and my concern for natural Florida is a s strong as any. I recently published a book, “Florida! Images of Natural Florida” in which I lament how, over the last eight years, our elected leaders have systematically abandoned Florida’s 50-year concern for its natural environment.
Former U.S. Senator (and a two-term governor of Florida), Bob Graham, a Democrat, along with former State Senator and State Representative Lee Constantine, a Republican, are jointly leading the way to a critically needed new and sensible approach for Florida’s future. Together, they have published a letter in today’s newspapers that provides a simple but straightforward take on what the state needs in order to insure its natural systems and state-wide economy can survive in a future that is dark with questions about their long-term viability.
The letter is printed in-full below, but to be fully informed be sure to follow the link at the end to the website for the Florida Conservation Coalition where you’ll find “A Water Policy For Florida.”
Emilio “Sonny” Vergara
Here’s their letter:
Meeting threats to the state's water supply
Where will the road to Florida's future lead us?
Protecting and conserving Florida's water is an economic as well as environmental issue, not one defined by geography or party lines. Both of us, a Democrat from Miami Lakes and Republican from Altamonte Springs, have made protecting and restoring Florida's waters a cornerstone of our public service. Today, we redouble our efforts to safeguard Florida's most valuable resource.
Spurred by outbreaks of Red Tide and blue-green algae leading to another summer of dramatic loss in revenue and decline of water quality and quantity in Florida's springs, rivers and lakes, the Florida Conservation Coalition (FCC), a coalition of more than 80 conservation minded groups, released 'A Water Policy for Florida.' This position statement provides an overview of many of the existing threats to our waters and a pathway for their successful conservation, restoration and protection statewide.
The coalition lays out five critical steps that must be undertaken immediately by our policymakers to safeguard our waters.
An ounce of prevention really is worth a pound of cure. Preventing pollution at its source is the most environmentally sound and cost-effective way to meet water quality goals. We have proposed common sense solutions to prevent pollution from wastewater, agriculture, biosolids and stormwater, among other sources, in at-risk watersheds.
AGGRESSIVELY REDUCE EXISTING SOURCES OF POLLUTION. Since the vast majority of Florida's waters are already impaired by nutrients, it is not enough to just slow the growth of pollution; we must reverse the trend. Adopting a stronger state model fertilizer ordinance, requiring effective best management practices, upgrading wastewater utilities and replacing or upgrading septic tanks in areas already impaired by excessive nutrient pollution will be an expensive but necessary undertaking if we hope to restore impaired waters.
"The Legislature should pass a law that provides
significant annual funding to acquire critical natural areas
and conserve working farms and ranches."
What happens on Florida's land determines the state of its waters. Florida needs to immediately acquire lands in sensitive areas, minimize urban sprawl and require efficient landscaping in new developments. The Legislature should pass a law that provides significant annual funding to acquire critical natural areas and conserve working farms and ranches.
SECURE FLORIDA'S FUTURE WATER SUPPLY. Public investments in water supply focus on engineering solutions to expand valuable water resources, missing opportunities to reduce demand through conservation efforts. Government programs should prioritize and incentivize water conservation measures as the first means to address Florida's water supply challenges. Additionally, Florida's water management districts must do a better job of accounting for the interests of the environment and public in making water use permitting decisions.
PROVIDE ADEQUATE FUNDING FOR FLORIDA'S COMPREHENSIVE WATER POLICY. For decades, efforts to protect and restore Florida's waters have been significantly underfunded. Compared to other important state priorities, like transportation, which receives nearly $11 billion in funding each year, funding for the management and protection of our water resources is sorely lacking. Although a true cost has not yet been determined, estimates suggest funding for Florida's water quality compliance and infrastructure needs to be a minimum of $1 billion to $2 billion per year. Traditional funding sources, like water management district ad valorem tax rates, will need to be restored and new funding sources, such as a water withdrawal fee, will need to be identified if we are going to save Florida's waters.
As the 2019 legislative session begins in Tallahassee, we are hopeful that our governor and legislators understand that Florida cannot afford another year, much less decades to come, of the environmental and economic disasters that have become commonplace across Florida. As former state legislators, we know the importance of public input in the legislative process. We encourage you to contact your state senator and state representative and tell them about the rivers, lakes, springs, beaches and estuaries in your community, and why statewide water protections matter to you.
But first, visit and read 'A Water Policy for Florida' (a 10-page document including a one-page summary) to arm yourself with the facts and information necessary to make a difference.
(Bob Graham is a former governor of Florida and former U.S. senator. Lee Constantine, a Seminole County commissioner, is a former state senator and former state representative. To read the Florida Conservation Coalition's 'A Water Policy for Florida,' visit the website here https:// For more information email

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

A good-news story

This is a good-news story.

American Bald Eagle
Lake Apopka
2018-10-08 (298)

Last Monday, 2018-10-08, Gary Kuhl and I made a trip to Lake Apopka located 15 miles north of Orlando.  It’s the third largest lake in Florida, about 30,000 acres, and is the head waters for the Ocklawaha Chain of lakes. I was hesitant at first because this huge, beautiful body of water was for years reputed to be one of Florida’s most polluted lakes.

Fed by a natural spring, rainfall and stormwater runoff, water from Lake Apopka flows through the Apopka-Beauclair Canal and into Lakes Beauclair and Dora. From Lake Dora, water flows into Lake Eustis, then into Lake Griffin and then northward into the Ocklawaha River, which flows into the St. Johns River” (Wikipedia).

This grand flow that starts north of Orlando is also joined west of Ocala by the crystal-clear waters of Silver River and ends up exiting the state at Jacksonville. It’s an extraordinary hydrologic system and an exquisite underpinning segment of north-central Florida’s water make-up.

Decades of abuse and lack of understanding of their impacts by local communities and farmers, however, who ditched, diked and drained 18,000-20,000 acres of marshlands along the north shore, caused the lake, for lack of a better way to describe it, to die.

Glossy Ibis
Lake Apopka
2018-10-08 (199)
Here, Wikipedia recounts one example of the disastrous abuse the lake suffered: “In July 1980, Tower Chemical Company (TCC), a local pesticide manufacturer, improperly disposed of significant amounts of DDE, a known endocrine disruptor, along with other toxic chemicals. As a result, these chemicals spilled into Lake Apopka, and the US Environmental Protection Agency was alerted. TCC shut down their operations in December 1980. In 1981, an EPA investigation began and the site was decommissioned and designated as a Superfund clean-up site. Despite their efforts, some of the chemicals seeped into the Florida(n) aquifer and have proliferated into some of Central Florida's interconnected lakes and waterways. This chemical has caused health problems in much of the lake's wildlife population, and has caused infertility and other sexual disorders in several species, including alligators.”

Florida Marsh Hen
Lake Apopka
2018-10-08 (267)
In addition, with the massive loss of wetlands which deprived the lake of its natural ability to absorb and process nutrients, combined with hundreds of thousands of tons of added nutrients and pesticides discharged from the surrounding farming operations, the lake eventually succumbed. Its enormous natural bounty was decimated along with its world-class reputation as a bass fishing mecca and dozens of fish camps and other dependent operations. The lake was left as a disastrous pea-green soup of dangerously fouled water and dying wildlife

In 1984, I left as director of the St. Johns River Water Management District after over five years redesigning the way the U.S. Corps of Engineers had intended to ditch, dike and drain 2,000 square miles of the Upper St. Johns River drainage basin and divert its flows south toward the Everglades. It was a bruising exercise but one that resulted in a showcase system where today environmentalists, developers, farmers and governmental interests have been brought together in support of common goals.

Great Blue Heron
Lake Apopka
2018-10-08 (158)
As I was leaving the district, I told the incoming director, Henry Dean, the next greatest challenge for him and the district would be Lake Apopka.  Over the next 17 years, to his credit, he built the upper St. Johns Project as redesigned and took on the challenge of Lake Apopka.

Little Blue Heron
Lake Apopka
2018-10-08 (298)
Today, the District’s efforts are comfortingly apparent for the lake. The farming operations have been displaced through the mechanisms and wisdom of funding from Florida Forever funds designed for just such problems. Farms were purchased and thousands of acres of fertilized and pesticide-laden fields are being converted back to the freshwater marsh ecosystems systems that originally flourished as the lake’s kidneys. As we drove along the “Wildlife Drive”, formerly part of the agricultural diking system, the beginnings of new a marsh ecosystem was apparent, and wildlife was abundant.

It was gratifying to actually see and experience at least one significant success by those who spent their careers – decades - identifying and addressing Florida’s growing water-related problems and finding ways to revert such damage or prevent it from becoming a continuing inevitability into the future.

The health of Florida’s natural systems is directly related to the health of the state’s future economic well-being.  It is a false premise that protection of Florida’s natural systems and the legal mechanisms it entails are antithetical to free enterprise and the spirit of entrepreneurial viability.

These are a few photos that bear witness.
Red-Winged Blackbird
Lake Apopka
2018-10-08 (45)


Friday, September 14, 2018

Morning thoughts - 2018-09-19: Fla. Chamber wants more of the same


Florida Chamber of Commerce - Outlining Goals for Florida in 2030

The Tampa Bay Times reported this morning that the Florida Chamber of Commerce has put together its "business competitiveness goals for Florida 2030.  It's worth noting that high on the list (3rd of 7) is this concern: "Florida's environmental permitting and land use processes (are) among the most complex in the nation."

Thus, we can expect to see the Fla. Chamber continuing to support the defunding and defanging of the state's environmental laws and agencies which has been devastated over the last 8 years under Rick Scott's regime through the next decade. And, along with it, the continuing decline, exploitation and loss of Florida's sensitive and unique natural systems to the greed of powerful special interests like mining, power, land developers, etc., and the lobbyists and consultants who serve them.  This is their plan for the next 10 years, as if we haven't had enough environmental disasters for the last eight.

Consider the above in context with the pressures our state's natural systems are under even today from the following realities: 1) Florida is the 3rd most populated in the country - over 20 million; 2) Florida is the 3rd fastest growing in the country - about 365,000 new residents per year, or 1000 per day, or one city the size of Tampa per year; 3) Florida is visited each year by a record number of visitors - over 100 million each year, or about one third of the nation's total population (330 million) per year.

There shouldn't be any wonder why Florida absolutely must have some of the most complex environmentally protective laws and rules in the country if the very reason all those people want to come here in the first place is going to be around for a few more generations, much less forever. Florida has some of the most sensitive, beautiful and complex natural ecosystems in the country.  Why else would all those folks want to visit?  If we let them be exploited to extinction we will have destroyed our bounty of golden eggs right along with the very goose that laid them.  How bright is that?

All the more reason for you to get to the polls in November and stop the pillage of our great state by electing people who will make the right decisions on behalf of Florida and its future, instead of the power of the party and the interests of special interests.  Haven't we had enough of that?

Gillum, the FBI and a boat

Also today, the TBT has a front page item about the continuing saga concerning rumors of an FBI investigation of Andrew Gillum for alleged public corruption. A close read of the article will lead one to believe it looks like a whole lot of smoke being blown at an issue that has no fire.  The FBI says he's not the target of an investigation and are warning those looking at it not to conclude there have been any unlawful transgressions.

The article is all about the significance of Gillum's photo in the boat with some undercover FBI agents.  Even though the FBI says he's not a target, no charges have been filed and people should be careful not to read anything miscreant into it, the article notes the DeSantis crowd will likely huff loudly and treat it as a great cloud of evil hanging over Gillum's head. So when you hear of it know for what it is, the fodder of prevaricators coming from an opponent's camp who after years in Washington won't discuss his positions on relevant issues because he needs to do more study and research.  What?

By the way, be sure to read Bart Bibler's response to those who think Gillum's a socialist HERE


Thursday, September 13, 2018

Andrew Gillum is being labeled a socialist - but he is not: Bart Bibler

I received the following in an email from Bart Bibler, a former employee of DEP who in was reportedly fired by the Scott administration for using the words "climate change" or "global warming" during a department meeting.  DEP officials later denied the allegation.  (See the St. Petersburg Times report HERE.)

His words here are relevant and worth your time.  It supports Andrew Gillum for Governor and I agree.  And, remember, I'm a Republican.     -Sandspur


Andrew Gillum is being labeled as a Socialist – but he is not.  Although he is endorsed by Bernie Sanders, he endorsed Hillary Clinton (a moderate Democrat) in the 2016 election.


Labeling is an old Republican tactic. Tie it into Venezuela; he’ll give everything away; the next step is Communism; etc.

Instead, he is trying to move us away from Extreme Capitalism, toward Cooperative Capitalism.

A Capitalism that cares about everyone, that cares about the environment, that recognizes that there are responsibilities, and not just rights.  That understands that we must work together to find solutions to gun safety, to address the climate change and water quality crises, to provide health care access and a living wage, to provide quality public education for all, to create job opportunities for all, to reform our criminal justice system and restore dignity, productivity, and voting rights, and so much more.


Rick Scott and Donald Trump are the poster children of Extreme Capitalism, both buying their positions with money made from unscrupulous business and exploitation, and willing to do anything to win.  They have destroyed any semblance of trust; the concept that a deal is a bond.  And Ron DeSantis is their clone and proxy.  Their policies are for the wealthy, because they are wealthy and they are the party of business over people and the environment, the party for the richest one percent.  They are both personally getting wealthier due to the policies that they have put in place, for their businesses that they continue to benefit from.  For their donors, they have dismantled our growth management, energy management, and environmental protection agencies.  They have eliminated access to healthcare for millions here in Florida, and sabotaged the public hospitals and health insurance system. They’ve privatized our prisons, which are packed with black non-violent offenders. They have encouraged the shifting of public funds to private charter schools, while public schools and teacher wages are eroded, and additional testing and gun safety requirements are added to their burden.  And women’s rights or LGBTQ rights – forget about it.


Andrew Gillum is a man who has overcome family challenges, economic challenges, and racial challenges.  Instead of becoming angry, mean and greedy, he became driven to lead positive change.  He did that through education and elected public service.  He has moved our great city forward on a number of important issues: discussion and improvement of race relations; enhancement of community policing and body cameras; reduction of our carbon emissions and construction of a 120-acre, 20 megawatt solar farm; challenging state laws enacted for the NRA restricting local gun control ordinances; declaring that Tallahassee would accept and welcome immigrants; promoting entrepreneurialism, job creation and jobs for felons that have served their time; funding major improvements in our infrastructure, including stormwater, advanced wastewater treatment and septic tank-to-sewer projects to improve water quality; restoration of Gulf Coast Amtrak Passenger Rail Service; etc.


I am proud to have Andrew Gillum representing our city, while leading the way for positive change for all of Florida and the nation.  Make no mistake about it, this is a Climate Change Crisis Showdown.  This is a Gun Control Showdown.  This is a Race Relations Showdown.  This is a Religious Diversity and Tolerance Showdown.  This is a Public Education Showdown.  This is a Women’s Rights and LGBTQ Rights Showdown. This is a Toxic Algae, Land Conservation and Environmental Protection Showdown.

But overall - this is a Showdown of Extreme Capitalism versus Cooperative Capitalism.


The eyes of the world are on us. 


Bart Bibler, Tallahassee