Swift, dangerous waters a drag on Allegheny River recreation
More than half of the regular slips at the Bell Harbour Yacht Club in Blawnox are empty.
Debris is snarled between the docks and what few boats are in the Allegheny River. And even some of the most seasoned boaters stay off the water while it runs higher and faster than in many summers past.
“The weather has destroyed the boating season so far,” said Bobby Bradley, owner of Bell Harbour. “It's absolutely destroyed it, and it's time that you can't get back.”
Heavy rainfall in the northern part of the state through May and June elevated flows on the Allegheny River from the Kinzua Dam in Warren County to downtown Pittsburgh. As a result, heavy currents churn up mud and cloud the waters, obscuring the debris that's picked up along northerly watersheds and washed downriver.
Most boaters have refrained from taking to the river to avoid damage from the debris, which includes everything from fallen trees to tires and barrels.
“It's not worth it yet,” said Doug Fait, who lives in Greensburg but spends the workweek on his 55-foot houseboat at Bell Harbour. “I've been on the Allegheny for seven and a half years, and this has definitely been the worst season so far. All it takes is one plastic bag to suffocate your engine.”
Fait isn't alone in his vigil for better conditions.
At Rosston Eddy Marina in Manor, even some of those who have paid for a slip have yet to drop their boats. And those who have, according to owner Bill Knopp, use them to socialize and sunbathe along the docks rather than take them out on the water.
It helps soften the blow of this season's weak start, Knopp said, but doesn't begin to address this year's dismal gasoline sales.
“We're selling about 30 percent of the gas we were this time last year,” he said. “The weather hasn't cooperated. Even on nice weekends, it's been so bad during the week that you can't use the water, anyway.
“The water's been high, and it's been really swift.”
The currents have been strong enough in some places to shift the warning buoys that the Army Corps of Engineers places above and below its navigation dams.
Without the proper marking in place, according to Army Corps spokesman Dan Jones, boaters and kayakers heading downriver may be unaware they're approaching a fixed crest dam until it's too late. This year, the corps has had multiple instances of people falling over the edge.
The corps will reset the dam buoys once river levels allow it, Jones said.
At the Allegheny's largest dam — the Kinzua Dam in Warren — release levels reflect the state of the season so far and provide boaters with some optimism looking ahead.
According to Werner Loehlein, chief of water management at the Army Corps' Pittsburgh division, the dam was releasing water early this week at 12,500 cubic feet — or nearly 94,000 gallons — per second. The rate is more than double the average discharge of 5,200 cubic feet per second.
Primarily to blame for the heavy discharge is the Allegheny Reservoir's rising water level, which was recorded as 4 inches above average last month.
“We have to keep the lake at normal levels,” Loehlein said. “When it's rising like that, the dam releases more water, and it's all sent downstream. That area just received a lot of rain.”
Since January, the Allegheny Reservoir, Loehlein said, received three-quarters of the total rainfall measured in all of 2013.
June alone, according to the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, produced 7.37 inches of rainfall in the area. That's nearly 3 inches more than the month's averages dating back 30 years.
But experts are expecting this year's boating season to boom with the Fourth of July holiday as discharge levels fall to normal.
With mostly dry weather this week, the Kinzua Dam's discharge has steadily dropped and is expected to fall to about 4,000 cubic feet per second on the Fourth, according to Loehlein.
Also encouraging for boaters is the weekend's weather forecast. Aside from a 40 percent chance of thunderstorms about noon on Thursday, the weather service is predicting sunny weather through the entire weekend, with high temperatures in the low 80s.
Blair Cessna, owner of Logan's Ferry Marina in Plum, said he's banking on the weather holding up over the holiday weekend. He is tired, he said, of spending three days a week cleaning debris from his docks.
“It seems like the water has been up 6 or 7 feet above normal for most of the season,” Cessna said. “You just have to hope that it comes down and things turn around. It seems like the marinas around here haven't been able to catch a break. Since Hurricane Ivan in 2004, things just haven't been the same.”
For Fait, the conditions are poor enough to make him second guess his annual tradition of boating the Allegheny on the Fourth of July.
“It's just been such a lousy season so far, I don't know if I'll go out,” he said. “Hopefully, it does change once July picks up. We'll have to see.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.