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Clogged with muck, shallow Schuylkill is putting rowing, regattas at risk

"Our hair is on fire," Laskow says, referring to rowing organizations fearful that if the river doesn't get dredged soon, two of the racing lanes might be declared unfair. The organizations have watched as nearby Cooper River in Pennsauken is becomming an ever-bigger draw after dredging was complete a year ago. And Mercer Lake near Princeton is also booming as a racing lure.

Paul Laskow, of the Schuylkill Navy, an organization that oversees rowing on the river, shown here on the Schuykill River, in Philadelphia, April 11, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer
Paul Laskow, of the Schuylkill Navy, an organization that oversees rowing on the river, shown here on the Schuykill River, in Philadelphia, April 11, 2018. JESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff PhotographerRead moreJessica Griffin / Staff Photographer

Paul Laskow, trim and fit at 69 and working as a lawyer, slips into a scull on the Schuylkill every morning the water isn't frozen.

After 54 years, the regimen has given him a keen eye for changes in the river. Lately, what he sees isn't good.

A typical scull is 14 inches deep, with about 10 inches sinking below the water. On a recent day, Laskow dipped a tape measure into the water at the end of the dock of the University Boathouse. The depth: 16 inches. At times, it's as low as 10 inches at the dock — though the race course farther up river is deeper.

"Our hair is on fire," Laskow said, referring to concerns among rowers that two racing lanes might be declared unfair if the river isn't dredged within a year or so.

Attracting regattas is a competitive business. This year's spring season is just underway. Location, cost, parking, and available hotels all factor into where teams choose to schedule events. But one factor always looms: the course.

No one is claiming the Schuylkill's days as an American rowing mecca are over. In fact, 33 regattas are scheduled through fall. But rowing organizations say this is the last year — for possibly years to come — that they have hope of securing federal funding for the Army Corps of Engineers to oversee a dredging.

If they are not successful this year, rowers will have to find another way to come up with the $4.5 million needed to complete the project — a nearly insurmountable task. They worry that the silt buildup can't wait another year.

Laskow is chair of a Schuylkill Navy committee that has been trying to get the river dredged since 2014. The Schuylkill Navy, launched in 1858 as a collection of rowing clubs, once counted Olympic medalist John Kelly Sr. as its commodore. So Laskow feels the historic weight of keeping rowing viable.

"It's beautiful," Laskow says of Boathouse Row and its view of the river. "You see the geese floating along, and it all looks fine if you're here picnicking. You wouldn't know there's a problem at all."

Stuck in the muck

The Schuylkill was last dredged in 1999, when 30,000 cubic yards of silt was removed over several months.

Since then, silt has returned, layering on the bottom of the river and creating shallow waters in Lanes One and Six of the famed racecourse that hosts the Dad Vail, Stotesbury Cup, and numerous other regattas. For fair competition, all lanes should be of equal depth. Now, Lane Six is about two feet deep, while other lanes are 10 feet deep. Lane Six is still being used in competition.

"We haven't declared the course as being unfair," Laskow said. "But it's on the horizon. We can see the day when a team drives up from Florida and gets put in Lane Six. And then they lose to a team they've beaten twice already in the season. They're not going to come back."

Inexperienced rowers have gotten stuck in the muck. Crews get out and drag their boats, causing safety concerns. Higher silt has allowed invasive vegetation to thrive just under the surface.

The dredge effort is in a bind. A federal act requires the lower Schuylkill to be maintained at a minimum of six feet deep. The dredge coverage area would span upriver from about the Fairmount dam to a half-mile above the Strawberry Mansion Bridge. In all, it's about 3.5 miles of river.

But there are no funds for dredging. And, although there are a number of groups that use and benefit from the river, there's no single agency responsible for dredging.

U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, who said he was able to get an earmark for the 1999 dredging, says he can't do so now because Congress stopped the earmark practice.

"The rowers have a right to be concerned," Brady said. "It's getting dangerous. They have to walk 20, 30 yards into the mud to put the sculls in the river. They've had [sculls] hit the mud and flip over. It's wrong, and it's a disgrace. We need to address this for the young men and women that use the river."

Jennifer Crandall, spokeswoman for the city's Parks and Recreation Department, said that the city supports a dredging but that it is the job of the Army Corps.

In January, Mayor Kenney, Brady, and the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel, Temple, Thomas Jefferson, La Salle, and St. Joseph's Universities sent a letter to the Army Corps urging action. But they know it's a tough sell.

Dredge projects funded by the corps, such as of the Delaware River, are typically done because they foster interstate commerce. The corps considers Schuylkill use as recreational, even if the regattas generate millions of dollars locally, said Ed Voight, spokesman for the corps' Philadelphia office. Voight said there's not much to do but wait and see if a dredge project for Philadelphia aligns with the priorities of the Trump administration this year.

"Ultimately, it's the Army Corps at the Washington level that decides," Voight said.

Rowers say a final option might be to ask the universities to help shoulder most of the cost.

‘An easy sell’

Philadelphia's rowing organizations have watched as the Cooper River in South Jersey, which once had a similar problem, has become an ever-bigger draw after its dredging was completed a year ago.

Prior to the dredging, Jeff Nash, a Camden County freeholder, said word had gotten around that one of the lanes in the Cooper was dead.

"Anyone who was competing did not want to be in Lane Six," he said.

Nash said officials believed they had to come up with the money to dredge because landing regattas has become so competitive.

The county spent $10.5 million to dredge the river from August 2015 through fall 2016 and completed an additional $2 million restoration of banks. There are also plans to install permanent start and finish towers, new docking systems, and other upgrades that regattas favor.

Jamie Stack, 43, who manages the Camden County Boathouse and rowing events, is ready for a banner season this year.

The county has booked 17 regattas, including one expected to draw 20,000 rowers, family members, and spectators.

"Since we dredged, we basically got every race back," Stack said. "This year, we added five new events. It's kind of an easy sell now. "