Manayunk Towpath improvement project nears completion while canal dredging gets underway

A long-discussed city plan to dredge the Manayunk Canal, aimed at improving water flow and enhancing the environment for fish and birds — and boaters, is getting underway, city officials said this week.

It was just about a year ago when the Philadelphia Water Department and the Parks and Recreation Department announced plans to dredge parts of the canal to remove built-up sediment that sometimes leaves the waterway looking like an algae-covered pond.

The $15 million dredging work will focus on three areas: Domino Lane, Parker Avenue and the Flat Rock Dam, and should be complete in 2014, said Joanne Dahme, PWD spokeswoman.

Lance Butler, manager of environmental restoration and monitoring for the water department, said the 13 species of fish counted in a 2003 survey are endangered by stagnant water, with three fish kills over the last 10 years. About 5,600 cubic yards of sediment will be removed, and an old sluice house will be replaced with a spillway wall, meant to enhance water movement and flow in the canal, Butler said.

Tuesday night, representatives of the city agencies and the Schuylkill Project gathered for a public update not just on the dredging, but on a variety of projects planned or ongoing for the area around the 1.7-mile Manayunk Canal and its trails. At the meeting, officials gave updates on three project areas: Lower Venice Island, the Towpath trail and plantings, and the upcoming Canal dredging work.

The first work nearing completion is upgrades to the Towpath and trail, parts of which have been closed since October. Rob Armstrong, preservation and capital projects manager for the rec department, said the work is 95 percent done. Crews have replaced bridges, widened the towpath in areas it was becoming choked by vegetation, and installed paved approaches to bridges that are easier on walkers and bike tires.

A ribbon-cutting on the completed towpath improvements is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Feb. 23 at the Lock Street entrance, with Mayor Nutter anticipated to participate.

“Things are in motion all over the place,” said Kay Sykora, director of the Schuylkill Project. “It’s great to have a project we can say ‘done’ about.”

* Sykora’s group has secured $85,000 in grants to pay for ecological restoration work in the wooded riverfront areas between Fountain Street and Shawmont, clearing invasive plant species and re-planting with native and more desirable ones. Much of the work will focus on the Ottinger Tract, an undeveloped strip along the Schuylkill River that has been in local preservationists’ sights.

Dennis Burton of Design by Nature, an ecological design and landscape restoration group that surveyed the area, said there are 151 species of plants found in that area. Of them, 93 species are native, 58 non-native and 15 listed as invasive, he said.

* On lower Venice Island, excavation work is continuing on the water department’s 4 million gallon, underground storm water retention basin. Excavation should be complete within six months, with a goal of having the tank poured and a new pump house built by March, 2013, Dahme said.

The tank will take in stormwater runoff during rain events, hold it until water levels in the sewer system recedes, then slowly pump the water back out into the system. The goal is to reduce flooding on low-lying Main Street and stop overflow into the river.

Once complete, that project will be followed by a Parks and Rec project to replace the former Venice Island rec center with a new performing arts amphitheater. Updates on the Lower Venice Island work can also be found on phillywatersheds.org.

Contact Amy Z. Quinn at azquinn@planphilly.com

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