The Schuylkill River dredging project — in need of a new contractor — is at a standstill

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Boathouse Row along the Schuylkill River

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

Long-planned dredging to deepen the Schuylkill River from Strawberry Mansion Bridge to Boathouse Row has been stalled for months, with no end in sight — much to the continuing dismay of those who use the river for recreational and competitive rowing.

“Everyone is understandably extremely frustrated and anxious to get the project moving again,” Bonnie Mueller, commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, a group of rowing associations, told WHYY News.

Rowers and paddlers who use that stretch of the river on a daily basis must know where the water’s depth changes to safely navigate the “tricky channels,” Mueller said.

Earlier this year, the Philadelphia District Army Corps of Engineers and the City of Philadelphia terminated their contract with Atlantic Subsea Inc., the Bridgeport, New Jersey, company that had been hired to do the dredging.

The project — funded by $4.5 million in donations raised by the Schuylkill Navy — started in June 2020, and Atlantic Subsea initially had until Dec. 13 to complete the project. But the company halted all work associated with dredging on Nov. 9 because it encountered unusually large objects in the river — telephone poles, big trees, and railroad ties — that were not originally specified in the contract.

“Atlantic Subsea Inc. failed to make sufficient progress against their agreed-upon scope of work despite being given the entirety of the contract period (and then some) to do so,” Mueller said.

A publicist from the Army Corps of Engineers’ Philadelphia District confirmed by email that Atlantic Subsea’s contract had been terminated in February due to a “lack of performance.” The contractor had completed less than 5% of the project by Nov. 9.

In the email, the Army Corps representative said that the importance of the project to the city and the Schuylkill Navy was understood, and that while an updated timeline for the dredging was not available, the organization remains committed to resuming the project as soon as possible.

Mueller, however, said she is not convinced that this dredging project was any more difficult to accomplish than the ones done in the past. The river’s conditions are deteriorating each day the project is stalled, she said.

“Conditions for safe and fair recreational use for both rowers and paddlers have been compromised for several years, hence the city’s and Schuylkill Navy’s urgency for this project,” Mueller said.

The main areas of concern in the dredging project are two of the rowing lanes, Lanes One and Six, now about two feet from the water’s surface. Those lanes make up part of the course known for hosting the Dad Vail, Stotesbury Cup, and Independence Day regattas.

Freddie Braun, a Camden resident and recreational rower, said algae blooms also have been a hindrance for rowers trying to enter the water at times.

“From the shore to maybe 10, 15 meters in, you couldn’t really row because the algae and plant growth was just so thick,” Braun said.

The rising riverbed also forced the Schuylkill Navy to move the entry point for Philadelphia Adaptive Rowing members from the west side to the east side of the river, Mueller said. PAR is one of 13 athletic programs offered by the Pennsylvania Center for Adapted Sports, which provides an outlet for sports activities to people with disabilities.

“The impact of this contract non-performance is real,” Mueller said.

Along with being a renowned body of water for recreational activities, the Schuylkill is a tributary of the Delaware River and part of the larger Delaware River Watershed extending from upstate New York, through parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Mueller hopes the Army Corps of Engineers will act swiftly to see the dredging project through.

“​​We completed the mission that was laid before us, to fund this project,” Mueller said. “Now, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must continue to fully execute its mission to steward the project to successful completion through whatever means necessary.”

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