The view of Vesper's dock from the club's Boathouse Row balcony. Water levels used to be 8 feet around the dock.

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Up the stairs from grainy black-and-white photos of Olympians and weathered trophies at Vesper Boathouse, Schuylkill Navy rowing company members Paul Laskow, Paul Horvat and Bonnie Mueller stand on a balcony overlooking the Schuylkill River. It’s a perfect December day. The sun’s peeking through Center City, speckling the water in gold. Later on, club members will undoubtedly take advantage of the mild weather for a winter row.

But there’s a problem with the scene, lurking below the surface. Under the balcony and next to the dock, even from 20 feet up, they can see the brown dirt of the river floor. The Schuylkill River is too shallow, and the federal government is years behind on paying for a dredging of the river that would solve the problem, plunging Boathouse Row into an existential crisis.

If nothing changes, it will soon be impossible for rowers to dismount from the famous landmark.

“We think in about two years,” said Horvat, “we’re going to have literally beachfront at our docks.”

[pullquote content=”We think in about two years, we’re going to have literally beachfront at our docks.” align=”right” credit=”Schuylkill Navy commodore Paul Horvat” /]

The water is about a foot deep outside Vesper, and that’s a little higher than lately because of the recent snow. In 2000, it was 8 feet deep. Other houses are seeing similar water levels, with some as low as six inches. Shallow water is also becoming issue on the edges of the river all the way up to the Strawberry Mansion Bridge, an issue that could one day affect Philly’s 14 annual regattas.

The shallow depth has already made it impossible for coaching boats to launch with their motors from the docks, and the docks’ planks have begun splitting; they’re meant to float, not rest on the ground. When levels get lower than about 6 inches, the bottoms of boats could get stuck against the floor.

Unlike the Delaware River, plagued by the water level sinking, the Schuylkill’s problem is the river floor rising. Dirt, sand and other material filters from the upper Schuylkill down toward Center City. So much has filtered down through the years it’s created the “silt island” between Boathouse Row and the Art Museum over the last several decades. The process is mostly natural, and Boathouse Row’s location near the dam makes it particularly vulnerable to rising levels of silt.

Schuylkill Navy commodore Paul Horvat measures water depth outside Vesper. Credit: Mark Dent

Lack of funding for a ‘recreational’ river

Not only are these depths troublesome for rowers, they’re technically a federal violation. Laskow, who’s researched the depth issue since 2014, noted a 1996 Congressional mandate states the water above the dam in the Schuylkill is required to be kept at six feet or higher.

“The bad news was the mandate didn’t come with any standing appropriation,” he said.

The lack of funding has led to the crisis afflicting Boathouse Row. Dredging, — a process in which a barge scoops dirt and other debris from the river, causing it to deepen — would cost about $4 million. In 1990 and 2000, the federal government footed the bill. By 2010, another dredge was necessary, but the federal Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for maintaining the Schuylkill and other area rivers, hasn’t assigned money for the project.

[pullquote content=”We keep putting it in the budget and they decide to do something else.” align=”right” credit=”Congressman Bob Brady” /]

Congressman Bob Brady helped pay for the last dredging with an earmark. Congressional earmarks were banned in 2010 — in part because of scandals involving former Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha — leaving Brady with less power to secure funding. He said he has requested money for the project the last few years, but the Corps of Engineers has used up its budget on other projects.

“We keep putting it in the budget and they decide to do something else,” Brady said. “It’s pretty important to dredge this river.”

Brady cut short his phone call with Billy Penn, saying a lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers was on the other line. He then called back to say, “I just screamed at him and hollered at him.”

“We’ve got to address this,” the congressman continued. “I’ve got people to operate at a cut rate. Just give me an operator.”

The Schuylkill Navy said other local politicians and leaders have pledged support, such as U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Congressman Pat Meehan. Laskow said New Jersey political boss George Norcross might even write a letter.

The lobbying still might not be enough. In recent years, the Corps of Engineers has de-emphasized so-called “recreational” projects for commercial projects. Its funding consistently goes toward work on the Delaware River by Philadelphia, and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. Five times since 2005, the refinery-dotted lowest end of the Schuylkill has received funding, but never more than $5 million. These projects involve shipping channels and national implications.

“In the case of something like the Schuylkill, the benefit is surely local,” said Ed Voigt, chief of public and legislative affairs for the Corps of Engineers. “It’s not a navigational benefit. So there’s no law against it being funded. It’s just too far down the list.”

He said it’s “highly unlikely” funding would be set aside for dredging the Schuylkill River by Boathouse Row in the near future. With the feds unwilling to pay, state and local government could contribute funding. Laskow said the Schuylkill Navy has been talking with the city about dredging and continued river maintenance. The Mayor’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.

The boat of Jack Kelly, Jr., of the Kelly family, hangs on the ceiling of a training room in Vesper Boat Club. Credit: Bobby Chen / Billy Penn

The future of Boathouse Row

Laskow said he believes without a dredge conditions won’t worsen to the point where the docks are unusable by next year, but 2019 could be another story. This fall, Philadelphia City Rowing, a youth program located on the far end of Boathouse Row nearest the Art Museum, couldn’t push off boats from its dock until the city came to its aid, extending a dredge used for a parks department project on the “silt island.”

“It’s only going to get worse,” said John Hogan, a volunteer coach and board member of Philadelphia City Rowing. “It’s not going to get better. Every time there’s a storm more mud is coming down.”

Schuylkill Navy members are aware of outsiders perceiving them as one-percenters who might wonder why the clubs can’t cover the dredging cost. They contend this perception is unfair. Public school students can join Philadelphia City Rowing for free. Mueller said she pays less money for her rowing club membership than her LA Fitness membership.

Private funding for a dredge would also be difficult because of the high costs already associated with the Boathouse Row properties. The boathouses require thousands of dollars in regular maintenance, and many have undergone million dollar renovations.

As working athletic clubs, they’re funded by members who pay for a product — a place to row.

“The way this [silt] accumulates,” Horvat said, “some of these clubs are going to be out of business.”

Indeed, the longterm threat isn’t inconvenience. It’s extinction. Without any dredging, there won’t be any water. Without any water there won’t be any rowers. And without any rowers, there won’t be any Boathouse Row.


Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...