Report and comments by Mike Roth
Yesterday a portion of Zone 8 of the Lower Santa Fe River finally had a day of no-wake boating traffic, and all it took were injuries that were very likely avoidable if the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission actually policed the river.
Coincidentally occurring only hours after a meeting of Three Rivers Estates residents and some county commissioners about the growing concern of safety on the river, a jet ski riding the wake of a motorboat apparently lost control and collided head-on with a boat going the other direction, sending the boat under a nearby dock, forcing another onto shore under an enormous wake, and sinking the jet ski. It took about thirty minutes for emergency vehicles to arrive, and yet another fifteen minutes before the first of four FWC officers arrived, each in their own boat. The jet ski rider was airlifted to UF Health Shands hospital with injuries that required emergency surgery, while a 14-year-old boy and his parents who had been riding in the crashed boat were brought to North Florida Regional Medical Center with non life-threatening injuries. according to an FWC report.
About the only surprise in this incident is that it doesn’t happen more often. Zone 8 is the widest and deepest segment of the Santa Fe River, and it has long been the talk among riparian owners that boating speeds and maneuvers, often by boats with motors better suited for ocean travel, have spun irresponsibly out of control, with virtually no oversight. Attempts to put no-wake zones or even limited speed zones in the past have been met with resistance from boating lobbies, and an apparent obstinate refusal by FWC to cede any of its authority over the river or take advice from citizen groups.
The ninety-minute morning meeting at Hodor Park at Three Rivers Estates convened about eighty local residents and was facilitated by Suwannee County Commissioner Ronald Richardson and Columbia County Commissioner Rocky Ford. They assured the group that the Gilchrist County Commissioners were equally concerned. The meeting included numerous anecdotes about near-misses but the grit of the meeting was to formulate an ask – a petition to request no-wake zones around the three TREPO-owned boat ramps and speed limit restrictions elsewhere on the river. My one attempt at introducing the additional malady of severe shore erosion and its effect on river flora and fauna was quickly dismissed as being of no interest to FWC. Our Santa Fe River, Inc. will pursue that concern with the Suwannee River Water Management District and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
“This will be an eye-opener” assured FWC officer Eddie Vazquez, a Madison County officer working Suwannee County on Saturday. He pointed out that there are no speed limits on the river, but speed could not even be used as an indication of dangerous boating since the officers do not have radar guns. When asked why they were not so equipped, he just shrugged.
On weekends and holidays, the lower Santa Fe River is a hazard that the public can only hope some agency takes into hand. Alcohol consumption makes the days more dangerous as they wear on. All of the agencies – county commissions, police departments, FWC and others – point to each other, while nothing gets done. Kayakers, canoers, swimmers (often children) and others are all at risk and should certainly be afforded the same “rights” that reckless boaters claim allow them to do anything they want on the water – a position apparently supported by FWC.