Overcoming its battered reputation as a polluted, industrial waterway, the Monongahela River has been chosen as Pennsylvania’s 2013 River of the Year.
Sponsored by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers, the honor has been presented since 1983 as part of a program aiming to elevate public awareness of rivers and recognize conversation efforts. The program also awards a $10,000 grant for community events to the organization that nominated the top river.
This year, Brownsville Area Revitalization Corp., a Fayette County nonprofit working to revitalize the area by bringing people to the water, nominated the Mon.
“Like so many of our great state rivers once sullied by mine drainage and other pollution, the Monongahela is surging back as a vital link to unlimited recreational potential and rich natural and historical resources,” said DCNR Secretary Richard Allan. “From the West Virginia border to the heart of Pittsburgh, visitors are rediscovering our newest River of the Year and the scores of historic towns and villages it showcases.”
Out of the 25,450 ballots cast, the Mon received 8,156 votes, edging out the Schuylkill River by fewer than 150 votes. This was the third year that online public voting was used to select the winner. The other finalists were the Lackawanna, Kiskiminetas and Juniata rivers, as well as Swatara Creek.
“We had a tremendous about of support from the area,” said Norma Ryan, BARC treasurer and former mayor of Brownsville. “It proves how people can really pull together when there is a need.”
According to Ryan, BARC plans to use the grant to promote a water trail map that it has been working for years to create as a way to encourage recreational activities along the Mid Mon River. The organization also will partner with the River Town Program, a like-minded project of the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, in an effort to bring folks to waterfront communities through walking and paddling tours, as well as gatherings similar to the Mon Ducky Race.
“Sometimes we take for granted the things that are right in front of our noses,” Ryan said.
By filling in the gap between existing maps of the Three Rivers and Upper Mon, BARC hopes to bolster tourism in the Mid Mon and preserve the area’s history.
“There’s such a story to be told on this river,” Ryan said.
Sara Goot, an AmeriCorps participant and 2012 Penn State alumna who completed BARC’s nominating application, said the geographic data has been pieced together, and she is now finishing up the map’s accompanying guide. The map will include icons that show dock locations and other features, such as restaurants and landmarks, for communities along the Mid Mon.
“It’s a giant step in the process that is changing the reputation of the river,” Goot said.
An area map maker who created other nearby water trail maps has been tapped to produce final design. Ultimately, BARC plans to print 15,000 to 20,000 maps to distribute to communities along the river.
Fellow 2012 Penn State grad Jamie Brackman, an AmeriCorps VISTA member who has been helping BARC with grant writing, said paddling trips can be an economic boon for river communities, but many aren’t taking advantage of such activities.
“The Mon is not just an industrial river or a dead river like some people say, but it’s a living river that can be used for recreation,” he said.