The task can seem never-ending at times, but Jacksonville District park rangers along the Okeechobee Waterway are educating boaters on navigation and anchoring policies adopted to promote safety.
The anchoring policy was formalized earlier this year. It prohibits long-term anchoring in the 152-mile waterway, which connects the Atlantic Ocean at Stuart with the Gulf of Mexico at Fort Myers. Exceptions are allowed for boaters who are making progress to cross the waterway; they will be allowed to drop anchor for a period of up to 24 hours in the same location.
“The basis of the policy is to provide a safe and open waterway,” said Steve Dunham, chief of the South Florida Operations Office in Clewiston. “It’s about navigational safety on a waterway where vessels are traveling at all hours of the day and night.”
The policy has strict prohibitions against using boats on the waterway for habitation. Dunham says this is to ensure boat traffic can continue to flow smoothly.
“Many recreational boaters were clogging the waterway, and navigation through some areas was becoming a serpentine event due to the zig-zagging that some boaters were doing to avoid these anchored vessels,” Dunham said. “Without this policy, it was only a matter a time before we had an accident.”
Implementation of the policy has been challenging, in part, because the state of Florida has adopted navigation laws that many see as much friendlier than the anchoring policy in place on the waterway.
“Boaters have to remember that state regulations don’t govern a federal waterway,” said Dunham. “Once we tell them that we’re doing this for safety reasons, they are very understanding.”
A new component to the education effort has recently included citations, penalties and fines for boaters found in violation of the anchoring policy. One boater was fined $500 over the summer for his failure to comply with the policy, something Dunham says is only done as a last resort.
“Over the years, it’s been difficult for park rangers to keep boats from anchoring due to the conflicting policies,” said Dunham. “Our rangers will continue to work to educate boaters using the waterway.”
Hundreds of boats continue to make use of the waterway in south Florida, which has remained open for more than a year after installation of a manatee protection system at the Moore Haven Lock and unexpected repairs at the St. Lucie Lock forced those structures to close for about a month during 2012.
Changes in operations at Moore Haven Lock were recently announced. On Wednesdays and Thursdays, the lock will operate on a limited schedule, with lockages at 8 a.m., 10 a.m., noon, 2 p.m., 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. On all other days, Moore Haven will be open from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. The other four locks on the waterway continue with their normal hours of 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., seven days a week.
“This adjustment is being made to accommodate a change in the staffing pattern at Moore Haven Lock,” said Tim Murphy, assistant chief of the Operations Division. “Our intent is to implement this change in a manner that causes the least inconvenience to those who navigate through the Moore Haven Lock.”