Schuylkill rowing enthusiasts are less than $1 million away from the $4.5 million they need to have 3.5 miles of the river dredged, to preserve it as the nation’s premier regatta venue.
But they don’t have much time left. Paul Laskow, who has been working on the project since 2014 for the Schuylkill Navy, the umbrella organization for Boathouse Row clubs, says they need to have finances lined up in March so the Army Corps of Engineers can bid out the job, get work started by July, and have the river ready for the fall racing season.
Dredging removes silt and deepens the river. The river hasn’t been dredged since 1999, and so much silt has built up under the rowing lanes that one of the six lanes is less than a foot deep in some places, while other lanes are close to 10 feet deep. That matters, because the deeper the lane, the easier it is for a racing boat to move through the water. These races are often won and lost by a fraction of a second. In competitions, all contestants should have the same course conditions. If coaches think their teams aren’t having fair races, they can pull out of regattas or move them to another location.
Regattas bring about $25 million a year in tourism dollars to the city, and their absence would be an incalculable loss to Philadelphia life and history. Competitive rowing started in Philadelphia 160 years ago. The river hosts 33 regattas a year, including the Stotesbury Cup, which attracts 200 schools and is the largest high school competition in the world, and the Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta, which draws 150 college and universities and is the most competitive North American college regatta.
In recent years, the Schuylkill has seen the development of a 10-mile trail and other improvements that have made the area a premier destination and a highly popular public gathering place. It would be a shame for the traffic on the water to disappear, since it’s an important element that brings people out to the riverbanks and trails.
The last time the river was dredged, then-U.S. Rep. Bob Brady was able to cover costs with an earmark in the Army Corps budget. But earmarks no longer exist, and the Army Corps won’t fund dredging, because it considers the use recreational, not navigational. It will, however, oversee the project. Officials say no environmental issues have been flagged on the section to be dredged.
With the federal government out of the funding business, Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration and river users — the Boathouse Row clubs, six universities that use the river, private donors, and foundations — are stepping up to cover dredging expenses and a plan to maintain the waterway and hold onto its regattas. But the public has a role to play as well, and can learn about donating at boathouserow.org. Paul Horvat, commodore of the Schuylkill Navy, said the plan is to raise up to 70 percent of funds needed for routine dredging about every 10 years.