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Schuylkill rowers still need $400K for dredge, so they’re turning to the public for help

A Schuylkill rowing group says it is still short $400,000 to have the river dredged, or it faces the potential of losing regattas.

In some areas in front of Boathouse Row, the water depth is less than a foot, creating a hazardous situation for rowers, who could get stuck.
In some areas in front of Boathouse Row, the water depth is less than a foot, creating a hazardous situation for rowers, who could get stuck.Read moreApril Saul

As recently as February, a rowing organization was confident of finding the last $1 million of a total $4.5 million needed to have the Schuylkill dredged or potentially lose regattas.

However, the Schuylkill Navy River Restoration Committee, which is overseeing the effort, says it is still short.

“We’re almost at the finish line,” said Bonnie Mueller, head of the fund-raising effort. “But we still have a $400,000 funding gap. So at this point, we definitely need the help of individual donors.”

Mueller said she’s hoping rowers, paddlers, and others who use the river will chip in by the April 30 deadline to close the gap. She praised city officials and universities with crew teams for raising the bulk of the money.

After The Inquirer published a story in 2018 about the rowers’ plight, readers wanted to contribute, but the nonprofit organization was not equipped to take individual contributions. Now, the organization has launched a donation page on its website.

Originally, rowers were hoping to have all funding in place by March so the dredge could be contracted out and finished before next year’s fall and spring regatta seasons were threatened. But they found some wiggle room in the process and extended the deadline to this month.

The rowers fear losing regattas to competing facilities, such as nearby Cooper River, owned by Camden County, and Mercer Lake at Princeton Junction.

At issue is silt buildup along the famed national racecourse that has made lanes an uneven depth. For fair competition, all lanes should be of equal depth.

The course spans from above Strawberry Mansion Bridge to the Columbia Railroad Bridge. Additionally, the area in front of Boathouse Row, farther downriver, also would have to be dredged to the Fairmount Dam. That’s a total of 3.5 miles of river.

The course has not been dredged since 1999, resulting in shallow waters in at least two of six lanes used in such famed regattas as the Dad Vail and Stotesbury Cup. Lane 6 is less than two feet deep in places, while other lanes are closer to 10 feet deep.

Moreover, some areas in front of Boathouse Row measure less than a foot, creating a hazardous situation for rowers, who could get stuck.

The rowers hope the dredge will begin by July and expect it to take about 90 days. That means it will last into October, during the fall rowing season.

Paul Laskow, chair of a Schuylkill Navy committee, said the contractor can work around races so regattas won’t be disrupted.

The Schuylkill Navy has been pushing since 2014 to have the river dredged and originally assumed it was the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers. However, the Army Corps said that it considered use of the river for rowing as recreational and that it only funds projects with an economic benefit — even though rowers say regattas pump millions into the local economy.

So last year, the rowers turned to Mayor Jim Kenney’s office, the Philadelphia Department of Parks and Recreation, and the Managing Director’s Office for funding. City officials agreed to back the project but did not have all the funding. The rowers then turned to six universities that use the Schuylkill for help: Penn, Drexel, Temple, Jefferson, La Salle, and St. Joseph’s.

Laskow said he did not yet have a full breakdown of funding to date.

Steve Rochette, a spokesperson for the Army Corps, said the federal agency would manage the project for the city. The plan is to dredge about 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.

Rochette said samples show the dredge material is not contaminated.

Recently, the Schuylkill Navy has taken steps to establish a permanent fund to maintain the river and avoid another near crisis.