Desperate Schuylkill rowers turn to universities for money to dredge

Will universities help pay to dredge the Schuylkill where their crews row and race?

The organization overseeing rowing on the Schuylkill says all hope for federal funding to dredge in front of Boathouse Row has been dashed and that it is turning to “Plan B.”

The Schuylkill Navy is asking six universities with rowing programs to help raise up to $4.5 million to dredge about 3.5 miles of river from the Fairmount Dam to above Strawberry Mansion Bridge. The Schuylkill Navy, a collection of rowing clubs, says it needs to act quickly or risk losing regattas to other venues, such as Camden County’s Cooper River or Mercer Lake near Princeton.

That key portion of the river hasn’t been dredged since 1999 when 30,000 cubic yards of silt was hauled away. Since then, silt has once again returned, creating shallow waters in at least two of six lanes of the national course used in such storied regattas as Dad Vail and Stotesbury Cup. All lanes should be of equal depth for a fair race. Now, for example, lane six is about two feet deep, while other lanes are 10 feet deep.

The rowers have been seeking funding since 2014, but ran out of options for the upcoming 2019 budget after dredging did not appear on the list of approved U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects. In fact, the corps confirmed there would be no funding available in the future because its focus is on waterways used for commercial purposes. The agency considers rowing a recreational activity even though its regattas bring millions of dollars into the city.

>>READ MORE: Clogged with muck, shallow Schuylkill is putting rowing, regattas at risk.

“I thought we had a 40 percent chance of getting funding,” said Paul Laskow, chair of a Schuylkill Navy committee that has been trying to get the river dredged since 2014.

But now, he says the rowers are facing an “existential threat” and need to get the dredging done by fall 2019.

The Schuylkill Navy is working with the city to arrange a meeting with athletic directors and other representatives of the universities of Jefferson, La Salle, St. Joseph’s, Drexel, Temple, and Penn, all of which have rowing programs. Villanova is another potential participant.

“It’s still in the very early days,” Laskow said. “It appears no one is making any commitments yet. Everybody is seeing what the lay of land is.”

Ron Ozio, a representative of Penn, said the university had no comment. Representatives for Temple, St. Joseph’s, Jefferson, Drexel and La Salle could not be reached immediately for comment.

Once funding is secured, the dredging will be fairly straightforward, said Laskow. The corps would run the project (even though it wouldn’t provide funds), find a contractor, and secure federal and state permits.

But Laskow said onetime funding isn’t enough. The Schuylkill Navy is engaging all groups that use the river — including the universities but also groups such as dragon boat paddlers — in an effort to establish a permanent fund to dredge at least every 10 years.

He has also applied for a $40,000 grant from the William Penn Foundation to pay for an engineering plan for decennial dredging.  That dredging would be funded by Schuylkill Navy clubs and regattas, not the universities. But universities that have rowing clubs or sponsor regattas may be asked to help.

The plan is to collect money each year from all those who use the river so “nobody is getting a pass,” Laskow said.