A plan by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Division of Recreation and Parks to prevent further damage to the Ichetucknee River ecosystem would replace upper river tubing with paddling activities and increase tubing on the lower portion by May 2021.
Daniel Alsentzer, planning manager for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection Division of Recreation and Parks reminded the more than 50 participants in a two-hour long presentation and discussion on Dec. 15th of the mission that backs the decision.
“The mission of the Florida Park Service is to provide resource-based recreation while preserving, interpreting, and restoring natural and cultural resources.”
Alsentzer gave an overview of the impact that overuse and misuse of the river by visitors has had on the submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) also known as the underwater forest which he said is the foundation of a healthy freshwater community.
The Ichetucknee Springs State Park boasts 3.5 miles of the Ichetucknee River, first and second magnitude springs at headwaters, eight major springs along the park’s river corridor and two distinct sections labelled the Upper Ichetucknee and Lower Ichetucknee. It consists of 2,531.87 acres, is located in Columbia and Suwannee counties and was acquired by the State in 1970, according to Alsentzer.
With several hundreds of thousands of visitors a year to the park, Alsentzer said the Upper Ichetucknee is showing the worst signs of damage from several factors that include people touching the bottom and disturbing vegetation and water quality affected by malfunctioning septic tanks and use of fertilizer by local agriculture operations.
Because of the decrease in activity related to COVID-19 closures and less visitors, recent trends showed a decrease in recreational activity from September 2019-2020 which increased SAV distribution and diversity proving that the area could recover over time with removal of recurring impacts.
Alsentzer presented a plan that includes closing the Upper Ichetucknee off to tubing operations and only allowing a cap of 100 vessels used by paddlers (paddle boards, kayaks and canoes) per day.
The opportunities for ecosystem recovery include allowing swimming to continue at the Head and Blue Hole springs, paddling only at the Upper Ichetucknee and an increase in tubing capacity to be allowed at the Lower Ichetucknee to make up for ending tubing at the upper location.
The mid to south section of the river can be increased to 3,000 tubes a day with tubers dropping in at the Dampier’s Landing to float will be able to complete that run over and over with no limit.
Comments from meeting viewers were mostly in favor of the plan.
Former Florida State Parks Chief Naturalist Jim Stevenson commented that science is outstanding and that “sometimes we are going to get the answer through science and sometimes we just have to use common sense.”
He encouraged visitors to accept the shift of tubing to midpoint while using the upper river to be enjoyed by paddle board, kayak or canoe.
He emphasized “patience and persistence” in rehabilitating the area.
According to Alsentzer, the plan is to make the proposal effective for summer of 2021. But before that happens, the FDEP will submit a draft document to Florida Division of State Lands in January for 100-day review by the Acquisition and Restoration Council (ARC). At the April 2021 ARC meeting, if approved, the recommended plan, “will be the guiding document for the 10-year plan,” Alsentzer said. It could go into effect as of May of 2021 .