6/7/14 Schuylkill River is the River of the Year

Main Line Times Column, Places We Love – Schuylkill River is the River of the Year

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By the time you settle in to read this article, I will be starting a 112-mile journey down this week’s Place We Love, the Schuylkill River.  Not only is it a place I love, but it also happens to be the River of the Year for Pennsylvania.  Sixty years ago this journey would not have been a pleasant one but today the river is a major asset for many communities between here and Schuylkill Haven, where my sojourn will begin.

This Saturday, the Schuylkill River Heritage Area crew will work tirelessly to put on a river sojourn for over 100 people per day.  More than 60 of the paddlers will complete the entire journey, which ends the following Friday at Boat House Row in Philadelphia.  Camping along the way and portaging around the dams, we will enjoy this temporary stay, or sojourn, along the ‘hidden river.’

All of our stops include an interesting speaker or two to further expand our knowledge of the river.  This year’s theme is ‘River of the Year’ and the line-up of speakers looks outstanding.  It includes a great mix of historians, non-profit and municipal groups as well as river adventurers.  It is a true representation of the network of people that care about the river and are actively working every day to celebrate and steward the river.

The Schuylkill River earned the ‘River of the Year’ award through online voting hosted by the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers.  The purpose of designating a ‘River of the Year’ is to raise awareness of the important recreational, ecological, and historical resources associated with PA’s rivers and streams.  Along with the designation, the Heritage Area has received a grant to put on public programming to celebrate the river, part of which supports the sojourn.

At the same time as the sojourn, 10 high school students from the Schuylkill watershed will be participating in a pilot program called Schuylkill Acts and Impacts program with the Schuylkill Headwaters Association in which they explore the watershed from headwaters to its confluence with the Delaware River.  Along the way, through kayaking and service work, they will learn the story of the river first hand as they gain an understanding of the source of their drinking water.  The Lower Merion Conservancy is proud to be sponsoring one of the students participating in the program.

It’s easy to forget that the Schuylkill River was not always as clean as it is today.  Around the turn of the 20th Century the Schuylkill River was essentially a sewer, receiving raw sewage and effluent from industrial operations as well as tons and tons of coal waste.  It was one of the most polluted rivers in the country.  By 1945, it was so full of culm, essentially coal crumbs, that you could practically walk across it in some places.  This lead to the first major government-funded environmental cleanup effort as Pennsylvania agreed to conduct the effort to cleanup the river.  The dredging that then ensued removed tons and tons of accumulated culm from the river.

In addition to this monumental effort, dozens of other groups have worked tirelessly to improve water quality and habitat conditions along the river.  Non-profit, private and governmental collaborations have resulted in streambank stabilizations and plantings, upgrades to sewage treatment facilities, permitting and monitoring efforts for point-source inputs, educational workshops and so much more have resulted in huge improvements to the Schuylkill River.  So much so that we are now dependent on it as a source of drinking water for 1.5 million people from the headwaters of the river to the city of Philadelphia.

Last year when I participated in the sojourn I noticed that I frequently had a hard time figuring out exactly where I was.  Most of the time I was paddling along stretches of forested stream bank where the only sound was my paddle dipping into the water and a chorus of birds and amphibians.  I see why it’s known as the hidden river.  These stretches were properties where the river was the very distant endpoint of a backyard.

Paddling through the towns was a different story. I was impressed with all of the revitalization going on along the river in various communities.  Instead of being the backdrop for a picture the river was becoming front and center.  New places to gather and sit, attractive and appropriate landscaping, new trails, free bike rentals, restaurants and so much more were drawing people directly to the river.  It is truly an exciting time for this river!

As I make my way from the headwaters of the Schuylkill River to the city of Philadelphia, I hope you will join me in celebrating this year’s River of the Year in your own way.  Visit your local Schuylkill River access and enjoy the hidden beauty of this incredible river.

Patty Thompson is the Executive Director of the Lower Merion Conservancy and can be reached at patty@lmconservancy.org

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