The Schuylkill at last will be dredged thanks to millions of dollars in donations from universities and individual donors, ending a threat of regattas leaving the iconic racecourse because of silt build-up, Philadelphia officials said Wednesday.

Flanked by the presidents of four of the city’s major universities, Mayor Jim Kenney and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell announced that with the public-private effort to raise $4.5 million to dredge the river, the project will begin in late summer.

Decades of silt build-up have made racing lanes on the famed course uneven, which threatens fair competition. City officials and the nonprofit Schuylkill Navy River Restoration Committee began discussing the need to dredge five years ago, but it’s only been over the last year that the effort gained real traction.

The presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel, Temple, and St. Joseph’s Universities appeared at Wednesday’s announcement on behalf of collegiate crew teams that depend on the river. Crew members from Villanova University and local high schools also attended the announcement behind Lloyd Hall at the start of Boathouse Row.

Kelly Byrne of Blue Bell, a 16-year-old junior at Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School, said she rowed on the Schuylkill for the first time last fall and saw the need for the dredge project.

“I just feel like it’s so important historically to the city,” Byrne said. “Honestly, when you get down on the water with the skyline behind you, it’s so beautiful.”

Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School junior, Kelly Bryne, a member of the crew team, attended the event to announce the Schuylkill River Dredge Project in Philadelphia, PA on May 1, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Gwynedd Mercy Academy High School junior, Kelly Bryne, a member of the crew team, attended the event to announce the Schuylkill River Dredge Project in Philadelphia, PA on May 1, 2019.

Mayor Kenney shared similar sentiments.

“Rowing for both recreational and professional purposes has been a hallmark for the Schuylkill for the past century,” Kenney said. He called regattas such as the Stotesbury Cup and Jefferson Dad Vail Regatta “beloved traditions” and economic drivers for the city, adding, "The Schuylkill must be properly maintained.”

It has been 20 years since the area in front of Boathouse Row has been dredged and 50 years for the racecourse, which is farther north on the river. Racers want even depths of lanes for fairness. And rowers need to be able to safely launch from docks along Boathouse Row, where the water is a foot or less deep in some places. Students have gotten stuck as recently as last year.

Meanwhile, Camden County’s Cooper River rowing venue not only has been dredged, but also has had its facilities improved, attracting ever more regattas.

A single regatta can bring hundreds, if not thousands, of crew members and their families to a location where they stay at hotels and dine nearby. So the loss of regattas can impact the local economy, officials said.

Mayor James Kenney, at the podium, speaks during an event announcing the Schuylkill River Dredge Project in Philadelphia, PA on May 1, 2019.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Mayor James Kenney, at the podium, speaks during an event announcing the Schuylkill River Dredge Project in Philadelphia, PA on May 1, 2019.

The Schuylkill Navy launched the fundraising effort in 2014. It wasn’t until publicity of their plight last year that the effort really picked up steam.

The rowers first turned to Kenney’s office, Parks and Recreation, and the Managing Director’s Office for funding. However, officials did not have all the funding. The rowers then turned to the universities that use the river. As of early April, the rowers were still hundreds of thousands of dollars short, so they began accepting donations from individuals.

In all, the public and private collaboration grew to 25 partners, including the city, state, seven universities, the Schuylkill Navy, rowing clubs, and regatta and paddling organizations, as well as individual donors. The Schuylkill Navy also set up up a way for people to donate online through boathouserow.org/dredge.

The following is a breakdown of the donations:

  • Individual donors: $1,075,000
  • University of Pennsylvania: $750,000
  • Drexel University: $500,000
  • Commonwealth of Pennsylvania: $500,000
  • Temple University: $500,000
  • City of Philadelphia: $400,000 to $500,000
  • St. Joseph’s University: $50,000
  • LaSalle University: $50,000
  • Villanova University: $25,000
  • Thomas Jefferson University: $25,000

On Wednesday, officials singled out individual donors Bill McNabb, former CEO of Vanguard; Tony Schneider, founder of the Philadelphia City Rowing Club for public high school students; and Edith Dixon, a philanthropist.

Now with funding in place, the Army Corps of Engineers will hire a contractor to dredge 60,000 cubic yards of material and pump it over Fairmount Dam and onto barges. The barges will dispose of the material at an Army Corps site near Fort Mifflin. The dredge spoils are not contaminated, according to the corps.

The dredging will last into fall and continue between several planned regattas.