by Virginia Thompson
Growing up in the Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania, I learned the power of rivers: Hurricane Agnes wiped out parts of my town when the river overflowed its banks. In calmer times, the river provided a beautiful respite. Now living in the Delaware River Basin, I enjoy the Schuylkill River, which dissects Philadelphia, for its recreational value throughout the year: regattas, festivals, walkers, joggers, bikers, and rollerbladers all take advantage of the City’s connection to the river.
My real introduction to the Schuylkill River, however, came three years ago when our high school daughter began rowing crew. Only then did I learn how river flow, wind, precipitation, and flooding affect such a smooth, beautiful sport. Days that seemed ideal to spectators often turned out to be challenging conditions for those on the water.
Never was the disconnect between those on land and those rowing on the water more pronounced than at the recent Stotesbury regatta, the world’s largest and oldest high school regatta, held annually on the Schuylkill River. The first day of the regatta was rainy with torrents of water backing up storm drains, but the rain’s impacts to the rowers were fairly minimal most of the day with warm air, negligible wind, and calm water.
By late in the day, the sky cleared, winds picked up and the rain moved out. Anticipating improved rowing weather, we were surprised by the cancellation of the day’s remaining races due to “deteriorating river conditions.” By the next morning, conditions were much worse: near-flood stage water chocolate brown in color, with the rushing current carrying huge logs and other visible and hidden debris that could pose serious problems. Surprisingly, the placid, cool, sunny morning was unfit for rowing. By afternoon, the debris had mostly cleared and rowing resumed. For the City Championships the next day, the water was significantly lower, little debris was visible, and the water was calmer. The disparity between the weather and the river conditions was so pronounced because it took time for the upstream floodwaters and debris to flow down the Schuylkill to Philadelphia.
Knowing the current conditions of the river is important for all recreational users. Fortunately, the Philadelphia Water Department hosts a website service, Philly River Cast, which provides a recreation-focused forecast of water quality in the Schuylkill River. The River Cast predicts levels of pathogens likely to be in the water carried from upstream based on precipitation, and provides a simple green-yellow-red indication of the river’s suitability for recreation.
While we can’t control the weather, at least we have a tool to help us be prepared for the conditions and able to make smart decisions.
About the author: Virginia Thompson is currently the Coordinator of the Exchange Network, a partnership of federal and state governments providing improved access to environmental data to make better and more timely decisions. She enjoys swimming, gardening, and bicycling on rail-trails.