Two weeks ago, Paul Laskow watched plumes of mud rise in the Schuylkill as rowers tried to push their boats off from the docks at Boathouse Row.

Normally, the water surrounding the docks is six feet deep. But these days, outside some boathouses, Laskow says, you can sit on the dock, put your hand in the water, and touch the river bottom.

Sediment buildup caused by the Schuylkill's various dams has long been a problem along Boathouse Row and the racecourses just upriver.

With the annual Dad Vail Regatta getting underway Friday, the river is long overdue for a dredging, said Laskow, who runs the river restoration committee of the Schuylkill Navy, the governing body of Boathouse Row.

Funds to dredge the river, however, are hard to come by. Laskow and his committee have been working for three years to get a dredging barge up the Schuylkill.

In the early 20th century, the city dredged the upper Schuylkill regularly. But during the Depression, funds dried up, and so did the river. "You could walk up Boathouse Row 20 feet off the docks," Laskow said.

These days, dredging falls to the Army Corps of Engineers, which has had a standing permit to dredge the upper Schuylkill since 1996 - but has not had the $3 million it would take to do so.

In 2000, U.S. Rep. Robert Brady (D., Pa.) managed to earmark funds to clear the upper Schuylkill of sludge.

On Thursday, he vowed to find funds once more.

"It can be dangerous for our rowers - having to walk through . . . mud to put the scull down and be able to row," Brady said. "It can be dangerous when we're rowing, to hit that mud."

Laskow said he had seen boat engines get stuck in the mud along Boathouse Row. And the Schuylkill Navy has barred crew teams from practicing in two lanes of the racecourse farther up the river because the water there has become too shallow.

Jim Hanna, Dad Vail's president, said the silt buildup isn't unexpected - "the Schuylkill silts up every 30 years or so. This is a cyclical development, and people's memories are short" - and the weekend's races will continue as they have for more than 60 years in Philadelphia.

A week's worth of rain, Laskow said, has helped to raise water levels.

But both Hanna and Laskow cautioned that the river needs to be dredged soon.

"We need to make sure rescue craft can maneuver the Schuylkill unimpeded," Hanna said. "It has not yet reached an inflection point of critical safety, but we need to take action before we have a crisis."

Dredging is not without its own complications. In Camden County, a dredging project launched on the Cooper River last fall - to improve conditions for rowers on a renowned racecourse - meant that no regattas were scheduled for this summer. The river opened to casual rowers in April after dredging had stopped - reportedly because of the local fish-spawning season - but the project remains unfinished.

The Army Corps of Engineers has funding to dredge only the lower Schuylkill, where the river meets the Delaware and shipping lanes must be kept clear of silt.

"Anything that makes shipping and navigation more efficient, that's to the national benefit, and that lowers the cost for the economy," corps spokesman Ed Voight said. "But the less economic element there is to it, the less likely those channels are going to get dredged particularly often."

Brady said the upper Schuylkill economically benefits the city, drawing crowds to races like Dad Vail and the Stotesbury Regatta, the world's oldest and largest high school rowing competition.

He said he is working to find funds for dredging in the Corps' budget - and is looking into borrowing a dredging barge from Penn's Landing small enough to maneuver the narrower upper Schuylkill.

"We just gave [the Corps] $200 million to dredge the Delaware," Brady said. "We can find a couple bucks to come up and do the Schuylkill."

awhelan@philly.com

215-854-2961

@aubreyjwhelan