BATTLE FOR THE RIVER

THE ISSUE: Recently published findings from an extensive study call for restoration of the Lower Withlacoochee.

OUR OPINION: Restoration should be a priority.

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The Withlacoochee River is one of the most important rivers in Florida, and a recent long-term study has revealed some alarming facts about its health.

The river is an area of ecological and hydrologic importance because of its ability to store surface water and slow floodwaters while sustaining flow to multiple rivers and streams, according to the Southwest Florida Water Management District. It’s also one of the most scenic waterways in the state and home to a variety of wildlife that form a diverse ecosystem.

In 2012, members of the Withlacoochee Aquatic Restoration Inc. (WAR) commissioned a study to illustrate the health of the river’s most downstream section in between Citrus and Levy counties — the Lower Withlacoochee River. The report by Gainesville-based Wetland Solutions Inc., published this month, documented “a variety of hydrological, physical, chemical, biological and structural impairments” from 120 years of human nature.

That’s unsettling. As a result of human interaction, invasive vegetation has flourished while native fisheries and other river habitats have either suffered or died off.

Members of WAR have done the investigation, raised money for the study and shined a light on the problems of the river. Now it’s time for federal agencies and lawmakers to address the problem. The fix shouldn’t be left on the shoulders of a volunteer group of area residents.

The study recommends restoration and offers several solutions.

Recommendations range from major reconstructions and septic-to-sewer projects, to herbicide and fertilizer regulations at a cost of between $20-150 million, depending on which strategies are taken.

The river’s watershed supports almost 500 species of vertebrates. The habitat is critical in supporting them.

“We have not conserved this river,” said Dan Hilliard, president of WAR. “We need to step up to the plate and start doing things differently.”

Hilliard is right. The degradation of the Withlacoochee River is a direct result of human interactions, and as caretakers of the environment, it’s up to us to fix the problem.

It cost in the ballpark of $340,000 for the study. Let’s make sure it wasn’t for naught.