Dig a little deeper: Schuylkill dredging set to begin for a safer rowing course

Silt hasn’t been cleared since 2000, making the area famous for regattas too shallow. With preparations now completed, dredge work is set to start June 1.

Boathouse Row along the Schuylkill River

Docks along boathouse row were removed to allow dredging to deepen the Schuylkill River. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Look across the Schuylkill toward Boathouse Row on a spring day, and you won’t notice anything out of the ordinary. The river is clean, calm, bright in the sunshine.

But there’s a lot beneath the surface — literally. The water in the Schuylkill is filled with silt from upstream.

Ever since the Fairmount Dam was constructed in 1822, slowing the flow of the river and creating Boathouse Row and the national racecourse, sediment has built up in the three-mile stretch below East Falls. It’s a natural outcome that makes regular maintenance dredging critical. But the Schuylkill, once dredged every 10 years, hasn’t been cleared since 2000. Off the docks of Boathouse Row, the water is no deeper than a foot, making boat launches hazardous. In Lanes 1 and 6 of the national racecourse, known for hosting the Dad Vail, Stotesbury Cup and Independence Day regattas, the river is as shallow as 2 feet — not nearly enough for rowers to navigate safely, let alone compete.

What happens when the river isn’t dredged? Philadelphia knows from past experience: In 1934, during the Depression, the city stopped dredging because of a lack of municipal funds. Sediment built up until the flow of the river looked more like a trickle. Rowing stopped. The Vesper Boat Club became the Vesper Bicycle Club.

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A photo taken on March 27, 1934, shows a muddy Schuylkill River bank at Boat House Row. (Images courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center. Temple University Libraries. Philadelphia, PA)
A 1934 photo shows a dredge on the Schuylkill River near Boathouse Row. (Images courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center. Temple University Libraries. Philadelphia, PA)

Today’s Schuylkill users didn’t want that to happen again. It took years, but in 2019, the Schuylkill Navy’s River Restoration Committee finally raised the $4.5 million necessary to fund the project and keep rowers on the river. They drew up a contract, selected a contractor, and scheduled dredging to begin in spring 2020.

Then the coronavirus shutdown hit.

The dredge machine that will deepen the Schuylkill River. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

When Gov. Tom Wolf ordered a pause on all nonessential work, that included the dredging and restoration of the river. The prestigious Dad Vail and the Stotesbury Cup regattas, which would have taken place in May, announced cancellations. Boathouses closed their doors and halted their activity. The surface of the river lay still.

On March 31, the Schuylkill Navy posted a photo of the river on both Instagram and Facebook, encouraging Philadelphians to stay at home. “Launching even privately owned equipment from publicly shared spaces impedes our collective efforts to distance and flatten the curve,” the caption read. “We’ll get through this, and we look forward to a return to the water together … when the Schuylkill will be waiting for us on the other side!”

Followers were worried about one key thing. “When is the river getting dredged?” commenters asked. “Will it ever [happen]?” Others speculated that the project might be on hold.

But time and tide wait for no man … and neither will the Schuylkill dredging project. After obtaining work exemptions and clearing away docks, the river dredge will move forward starting June 1.

The preparatory work has already begun.

The pipeline and dredge in place in the Schuylkill River. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

What’s happening right now?

Ride along Kelly Drive, and you’ll see that the heavy wooden docks along the edge of the river have been dismantled and removed by Schuylkill Navy members. The dredge project contractor, New Jersey-based marine services company Atlantic Subsea Inc., has already begun putting together miles of PVC pipeline to carry the dredged material away from the site, assembling mini-scaffolding so that pipe can traverse the Fairmount Water Works dam, and preparing turbidity curtains — floating barriers used to contain silt and sediment that could be stirred up during the dredge — for various sections of the river.

Tim Rooney, project manager from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, said the contractor will then dig the specific areas to a depth of 6 feet. Near the houses on Boathouse Row, where hydrographic surveys and river users indicate the Schuylkill is shallowest, that means removing more than five feet of sediment buildup.

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“The majority of the material that’s being dredged is going to be in that Boathouse Row vicinity,” Rooney said, “and up in the racecourse by the west bank … moving into the center of the river, it gradually gets deeper and deeper, so we’re not dredging across the entire river in any particular location.”

An Atlantic Subsea, Inc. crane barge on the Schuylkill along the river trail. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The project has three stages:

  • June 1, work on the Boathouse Row portion of the river begins, and is estimated to take about three months.
  • On completion of the first stage in September, the contractors will begin dredging the adaptive rowing lagoon on the west side of the river. Alain Joinville of Philadelphia’s Department of Parks and Recreation said that’s expected to last two to three weeks.
  • Starting in October, the area of the national racecourse Rooney mentioned will be dredged, near the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. That’s projected to be completed in December.

The project’s estimated finish date is Dec. 13, “assuming no delays or production snafus,” Joinville wrote in an email to WHYY News. To disturb the environment for fish as little as possible, he added, “We will abide by the various … spawn blackout windows during the dredging project.”

Where is the dredged material going?

The contract estimates dredging about 60,000 cubic yards of sediment – that’s about 200,000 bathtubs full of river dirt. The dredged material will be pumped through pipelines over the Fairmount Dam, then loaded onto barges just south of the Route 676 bridge. Next, the barges will transport the material south along the river and dispose of it by pumping it into the Fort Mifflin Combined Disposal Area, which the Army Corps of Engineers owns and operates.

There is no set strategy for managing dredged sediment right now, which means disposal and reuse of the material can differ. For example, for a maintenance dredging contract, Little Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, intends to mix the dredged material with leaf compost and distribute it to different properties in the area as topsoil. Rooney said there are no plans to do something similar with the Schuylkill dredge.

“With this material, it’s mostly organics, so it won’t be beneficially used,” Rooney said last week. He described the Fort Mifflin facility as a sort of “upland landfill,” where the material will be displaced, dried, and sold as fertile river sediment.

“But it takes several years for it to be processed, to dry … where it can actually be used,” he added.

Schuylkill River dredging will occur above the Fairmount Dam. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

When will rowers return?

That’s hard to say, said Schuylkill Navy vice commodore Bonnie Mueller. Especially now, as Philadelphia works to manage the effect of the coronavirus, boat clubs remain in conversation with the city’s Parks and Rec department, waiting till the time is right to resume river activity. Dredging just adds another layer to that plan.

“This is a very large, very complex, very important project,” said Mueller. “Even without a global pandemic and an unprecedented shutdown, it would be difficult.”

And as it turns out, she said, the confluence of the dredging and the coronavirus shutdown was “in a way, advantageous.” The dredging calendar, which is planned carefully around environmental concerns such as nesting turtles and migratory fish spawning times, was “always going to cause a significant disruption to any activity and any launching” that might occur this spring or summer. With COVID-19 closures firmly in place, river use scheduling is one less thing to worry about.

The dredge in place in the Schuylkill River. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Not that Mueller doesn’t miss the river. She’s been rowing since college, she said, partly because the water brings her “an incredible sense of peace.” But as a rower, she also understands very well the importance of making hard decisions toward a collective, long-term good.

“Would I like to be on the water at this moment in time? Yes. But at the same time, do I recognize that my need to be on the water pales in comparison to the needs that so many people in our city and community are experiencing? Yes, I do.”

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What else is new on the river?

Joinville said that in addition to the Schuylkill dredge, the city is moving forward with previously planned dock improvements, including the installation of a new floating dock at Pleasant Hill Park on the Delaware River. The Pleasant Hill dock will complete its permitting phase in a few months; construction will begin shortly afterward.

And last month, the Philadelphia Water Department announced plans to create a floating “outdoor classroom” in the tidal Schuylkill near the Fairmount Water Works, according to documents submitted to the Army Corps of Engineers.

An Atlantic Subsea, Inc. crane barge on the Schuylkill along the river trail. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

In the end, Rooney said, COVID-19 shutdowns delayed the dredge, but didn’t derail it. The mandated shutdown meant a setback on the order of a few weeks, as well as implementation of state-approved social distancing guidelines in revised safety submittals.

Still, “we’ve been moving forward the whole time,” he said. “We were always planning for the project to be ultimately a year long … there was the downtime during the state mandate, [but] we got through that. So nothing’s really shifting the work.”

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