Lacking federal support, rowing community turns to its own to fund much needed dredge

The Schuylkill River needs to be dredged.

From the neoclassical Fairmount Water Works down to Route 1’s modernist Twin Bridges, the river bed has been slowly rising, bringing with it a cumbersome milfoil growth that catches on rowers’ oars. Now, one of the most iconic rivers for rowing is in danger of losing key regattas as the it becomes too shallow.

Silt deposits that have steadily inched closer to Boathouse Row over the last 100 years now threaten to shut down its docks. Already, two boathouses — Fairmount Boat Club and Philadelphia City Rowing (PCR) — have spent the last few months unable to launch boats.  

For years now, a group of local rowers known as the River Restoration Committee (RRC), has been trying to gain federal funding for the project, but to little success so far. Now, it may be time for Philadelphia’s rowing community to take the Schuylkill’s upkeep in their own hands.

Responsibility for maintaining navigability the Schuylkill River, like all of the nation’s negotiable rivers, falls on the United States Army Corps of Engineers.  

According to Edward Voigt, communications director for Corps local office, the dredging budget is tight and recreational riparian uses are low priority. “Because this stretch of the Schuylkill is considered ‘low commercial use’ it does not compete well nationwide among other U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects for constrained funding, and therefore did not receive funds in either fiscal 2017 allocations or the proposed fiscal 2018 budget for the USACE civil works program,” said Voigt. “This project will continue to be considered for funding in future years, along with many other worthwhile projects, but realistically the odds are very slim.”

The Schuylkill has always been taken care of with federal or municipal funds. The last time the river was dredged was 1999, paid for by congressional earmarks courtesy of Rep. Bob Brady. Since then, Congress enacted an earmark ban, making it unlikely the federal government will cover the tab for further dredging.

The lack of federal funds doesn’t necessarily mean the Schuylkill is doomed, said Voigt, who noted that the Corps could authorize dredging paid for by private parties.   

The RRC formed nearly four years ago  to push for the federal funds for dredging the river. RRC has spent most of their existence lobbying  Philadelphia’s congressional delegation. While they claim to have support — they say the city, Representatives Bob Brady and Dwight Evans, and Senator Bob Casey (Senator Toomey has told the group he cannot support any effort to federally fund a dredge) all support dredging — they have little to show for it in the form of funds. The city recently kicked in $400,000 to dredge as far as that money will take the RRC. Fairmount and PCR, the city’s public youth rowing club, will get back use of their docks, but the money won’t go much further than that. Dredging the Schuylkill will cost around $5 million. That figure is just a rough estimate, though, extrapolated from how much dredging city’s $400,000 will cover; an actual engineering study would be required for a more definitive price tag.

After four years of hoping Philadelphia’s congressional delegation could find funds, the RRC has abandoned that hope. After 2016 elections, the idea of GOP-controlled Congress and a populist president supporting appropriations to aid a patrician sport in Democratic Philadelphia became risible.

From the outside looking in, the river looks unchanged. For those who bike, jog, or drive along the Schuylkill, it looks just fine — a problem befitting a river whose name translates from Dutch for“Hidden Creek.” But under the water’s surface, the river bed continues to rise. Just last year, the river was overcome with milfoil, which became a hazard for all recreational activity on the river, not just rowers.

“This is an invisible problem to everyone but us,” said Bonnie Mueller, secretary of the Schuylkill Navy, the governing body over the area’s rowing clubs, and RRC member. “It’s on this group to make this issue more visible.”

The RRC plans to seek donations from wealthy, individual donors, but they want to approach the colleges, universities, and private high schools who inhabit the boathouses first. From the outside looking in, the $5 million does not seem like an insurmountable price, and one that university athletic departments should be able to muster.  The RRC knows this, but is worried that the wealthier institutions that inhabit the Schuylkill will turn a blind eye.  

Paul Laskow, RRC’s founder worried that those who use the river daily will continue to ignore the problem. If they don’t understand the problem, he said, will they be willing to pay?

“It’s like when you go out to dinner with your friends from college,” said Laskow. “Everybody has a great time, but when the check comes, nobody wants to pay.”

The committee worries that raising private funds will set a precedent for future dredges. Right now, the Schuylkill requires dredging every 15 years. So, RRC is looking beyond the immediate dredging needs to consider options for permanently fixing the problem. The RRC wants to commission an engineering study to figure out whether or not there is a way to halt this recurring issue.

The problem is caused by the Fairmount Dam, which was originally built in 1822 and reworked in 1928. The dam is easily recognizable as the waterfall situated at the end of Boathouse Row, in front of Fairmount Water Works. The dam has slowed the river over a three mile stretch leading back to East Falls, allowing for the rowing, kayaking, and dragon boating the area is famed for. But the buildup of sediment is a side effect that comes with the manufactured slowing of the river.  

One of the results: what is now referred to as Water Works Island. It’s not much of an island, or really an island at all, but it does obfuscate the view of Lloyd Hall from MLK Drive. The land mass is a result of sediment built up over the past century, and is currently home to some very tall trees. The area around the island has been dredged over the past few months, paid for by the city, in order to put in a boardwalk. The boardwalk is part of a Philadelphia Museum of Art project, and will allow museum patrons to walk around the island, providing an on the water view of the Waterworks, Boathouse Row, and the city skyline.

The Schuylkill Navy was not the biggest fan of this boardwalk, but the group was mollified by the dredging funds, at least for the time being. Mueller believes the island will continue to encroach on the boathouses, and could one day obscure Boathouse Row.

The river is an important source of drinking water throughout Philadelphia after heavy treatment, and many RRC members worry that putting off the dredge any longer may have serious ecological impacts. The regulatory body that oversees the river, the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), declined to comment. The project, the DRBC said, may still come before them to review if it ever happens.

“Whether we like it or not, we have to deal with this reality. Even within our [rowing] community, the problem hasn’t been recognized,” said Mueller, lamenting the lack of urgency that she deals with on a daily basis. “It’s not just about rowing. It’s about Boathouse Row and its place in the city’s history.”

Dear reader, your support is essential for PlanPhilly’s independent, watchdog coverage. Please help us continue providing the local public interest news that you value in 2018 by making a tax-deductible donation during our once-a-year membership drive. Thank you for eleven great years of coverage on the built environment and counting!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal