For almost two decades, silt has built up on the floor of the Schuylkill, slowly threatening navigation and safety.
All along, the Schuylkill Navy, Boathouse Row’s umbrella organization, has been pressing to have the river dredged. If it doesn’t happens soon, the mud could muck up Philadelphia’s status as the nation’s premiere regatta city and all its accompanying recreational, scholastic, and economic benefits.
The Army Corps of Engineers’ regional offices agree that the river should be dredged, and have said so every year since 2015. They even got the project added to the federal budget. But because Congress has been playing a partisan game of chicken for years, funds haven’t been released for Philadelphia’s stretch of the river.
Meanwhile, the silt keeps building up, slowly filling in racing lanes and the basin by Boathouse Row.
The corps says the river’s rowing lanes should be six feet deep. But two lanes are considerably less than that – maybe just two feet.
Lane depth is important to rowers because the depth of the water affects speed. Boats move more slowly through shallow lanes than deeper ones. Some rowers fear teams may drop out of regattas if they feel the river’s depth is making races unfair.
In the worst-case scenario, Philadelphia could lose its status as the nation’s finest rowing city. It hosts the largest high school, collegiate, and club regattas in the country. Along with dozens of other rowing events, crew races on the Schuylkill are an economic engine that helps fill hotels and restaurants in the region. And it’s free to watch from the river banks, adding to the city’s overall quality of life.
To protect the river, Sen. Bob Casey and Reps. Bob Brady, Dwight Evans, and Brendan Boyle (all D., Pa.) and Rep. Pat Meehan (R., Pa.) have asked the corps to dredge the Schuylkill, noting that the muck hasn’t been cleaned out since 2000. They’re not alone. Mayor Kenney and the presidents of Drexel University, the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Thomas Jefferson University, LaSalle University, and St. Joseph’s University also are lobbying.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) said in a statement that he “hopes the Army Corps will have sufficient resources to carry out this project.” That’s probably better than opposing the project, but more enthusiastic support by him would help more. Toomey should know high schools from across the region participate in races on the Schuylkill, which means a lot of Pennsylvania voters are interested in the sport and the health of the river.
Rowers aren’t the only people who enjoy the river. The stretch of Fairmount Park around the Schuylkill is one of Philadelphia’s most precious jewels. Every weekend, even in awful weather, it vibrates with walkers, runners, and cyclists.
The Army Corps needs to dredge the Schuylkill. River supporters have said they will find a way to fund future dredging projects. When they do, those funding plans should include the city, state, rowing community, hospitality industry, and other beneficiaries of the river. Because the Schuylkill belongs to all of us, we all should be responsible for keeping it healthy.