Six Pennsylvania waterways vie for recognition as the state's big river

The Monongahela, which ends in Pittsburgh, is among waterways vying for Pa. River of the Year.
The Monongahela, which ends in Pittsburgh, is among waterways vying for Pa. River of the Year. (VisitPittsburgh)
Posted: January 06, 2013

A battle is brewing on the banks of the Schuylkill - and the Monongahela, the Lackawanna, the Juniata, the Swatara, and the Kiskiminetas.

Those six waterways are vying for the Pennsylvania River of the Year title, to be decided by a public online vote.

As of Friday afternoon, with 6,830 votes cast, the Monongahela was in the lead (2,103 votes), with the Schuylkill lapping at its heels (1,762).

The contest, funded by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and run by the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers, aims to raise awareness and appreciation of the state's waterways.

For smaller rivers such as the Kiskiminetas and the Swatara, the title would bring a big public relations bump. And the $10,000 prize would help kick-start celebratory and educational events on the river for 2013.

For the Schuylkill, this is more about bragging rights.

After all, "awareness" is hardly in short supply in its case, and $10,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the millions flowing into long-term river cleanup and recreation projects.

Joseph Syrnick, president and chief executive of the Schuylkill River Development Corp., said that the Schuylkill had come a long way and that some portions - such as the Center City greenway - were bordering on overuse. But other sections, such as the new Gray's Ferry Crescent greenway, remain isolated, he said.

Of the planned 130-mile Schuylkill River Trail, only about 40 miles have been built. Syrnick said the project "could use a boost" to get more people and cities more involved.

In 2011, the title went to the mighty Delaware. But last year's winner was a mere 45-mile tributary - Stonycreek River in the Laurel Highlands area.

The Stonycreek has rebounded in recent years from the devastating runoff of abandoned strip mines. It meanders through rolling farmland, woodlands, and former coal-mining communities, attracting anglers with its pristine trout fishing and white-water rafters with the longest set of continuous rapids in the eastern United States.

The Stonycreek was already becoming a major outdoor recreation and tourism destination, and "the River of the Year thing just took the interest in that up a whole notch," said Mike Quinn, facilitator of the Stonycreek Quemahoning Initiative. After winning the award, the river got a visit from the governor, and won grants for social media promotion and recreation subsidies to lure people to try canoeing or kayaking.

The Stonycreek beat out three of this year's competitors: the Monongahela, the Kiskiminetas (a confluence of waterways that join the Allegheny near Freeport), and the Juniata, a 94-mile rural river stretching from Huntingdon to Amity Hall.

Also in the running this year are two tributaries of the Susquehanna River in Northeastern Pennsylvania - the Lackawanna, which will connect to the Delaware and Hudson Rail-Trail, and the Swatara, a 72-mile creek with a legacy of frontier forts and Underground Railroad stops.

Although the two biggest rivers are in the lead, much could change in the next two weeks.

Quinn said the contest seemed a bit "like David and Goliath," but he had a strategy to beat his urban competitors: "I waited up until three days before the deadline and let them take the lead. And then we would work tirelessly for three days, knocking on doors and making calls."

It worked.

The ballot is open online at  www.pawatersheds.org/vote through Jan. 18. One vote per person.


Contact Jessica Parks at 610-313-8117, @JS-Parks or jparks@philly.com.

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