Maintaining the Schuylkill trails post-flood is a family — and community — affair

When the river floods, the water deposits debris plus a lot of mud — and often, sewage — on its banks. Volunteers helped clear the post-Isaias mess.

Volunteers helped clean up a mess of debris and mud left on the Schuylkill Bank post-Tropical Storm Isaias. (Katie Meyer/WHYY)

Volunteers helped clean up a mess of debris and mud left on the Schuylkill Bank post-Tropical Storm Isaias. (Katie Meyer/WHYY)

Every time Philadelphia gets a lot of rain, Joe Syrnick knows exactly how the Schuylkill River will flood — and what it will mean for the Schuylkill Banks trail.

“All of this mud here came because it overflowed its banks further up, it got onto the railroad tracks, flowed down the railroad corridor, and then came back in across the trail, and back into the river,” he said. “That’s the topography.”

Syrnick heads the Schuylkill River Development Corp., a nonprofit that works to redevelop and maintain the parks and trail along the banks. His younger brother, Blaise Syrnick, works as the group’s operation manager, directly overseeing the 8-mile corridor under the park’s purview, and the trail that runs along it.

On Saturday morning, both men were out on the riverfront, wearing masks, covered in mud, and zipping up and down the trail on golf carts, helping to clear away the branches and muck that this week’s heavy rain deposited on the banks.

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Blaise Syrnick keeps track of the Schuylkill’s floods with lines drawn on one of his riverside sheds. This flooding, courtesy of Tropical Storm Isaias, reached about 10 inches up the shed’s outer wall and wasn’t the worst he’s seen — it got to 2 feet in 2014.

Blaise Syrnick, who keeps track of the Schuylkill’s floods, cleans up debris left on the Schuylkill River Trail by Tropical Storm Isaias. (Katie Meyer/WHYY)

Still, he said, it’s important to get the several inches of dark, smelly mud off the riverside. For one, Philly’s elderly combined sewer system overflows during bad storms. Untreated sewage ends up in the river — and by extension, in the mud that the floodwaters leave behind.

Plus, it’s not great for the grass.

“If I have 4 inches of mud on my lawn, in two weeks my lawn will be dead,” the younger Syrnick said. “We’re also taking all the debris that was caught at the bridges in the river, that got up into the trail, away about 30 feet, all the way up to the railroad tracks.”

The volunteers helping to shovel the mud and pack detritus into a dumpster varied widely in age, and in experience. Some have been volunteering with the Schuylkill River Development Corp. for a long time. Others were just walking by and decided to pitch in.

Sawyer Rioux, who is 25 and unworried about the possibility of sewage, was sliding through the mud in bare feet between loading buckets into the golf cart. He said it was part of his technique to entice new volunteers.

Sawyer Rioux helped clean up a mess of mud left on the Schuylkill River Trail by Tropical Storm Isaias. (Katie Meyer/WHYY)

“It’s fun. You can slide around, you don’t get your shoes all muddy. I’m having a blast,” Rioux said. “We’re trying to market it, trying to get people off the trail to come and shovel.”

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A little way downriver, Karen Smith, who was helping clear debris out of some bushes that were pummeled by the storm, estimated she started volunteering at the trail about 15 years ago — long before it was paved, or so well-landscaped.

Smith lives outside the city these days, but said she jumped at the chance to get back out on the river. She noted that it was the first volunteer session the river development organization has been able to have since the pandemic hit in March.

“It’s good to be back out on the trail,” she said. “It’s nice to be able to volunteer, to see everybody.”

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