Award shows Shenango River's value to community

The Shenango River is pictured during a heavy snowfall in Sharon.

Communities and groups along the Shenango River are seizing opportunities on the the waterway’s newly won status as Pennsylvania’s “River of the Year’’ by the state.

Dr. Brandi Baros, president of Shenango River Watchers, was unable to hide her elation after hearing about the award. The non-profit group nominated the river for the contest.

“We are thrilled, amazed and just really, really happy that the Shenango is the River of the Year,’’ Baros, a biologist who is the regional coordinator for environmental health and safety at Penn State University, said. She is based at the college’s Shenango Campus in Sharon.

The Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources announced the award in February after declaring Shenango River the winner in online voting for the contest. The local river got 5,436 votes — which was enough to beat the Lehigh River, with 5,287 votes.

This a major turnaround for the river. River Watchers has been the catalyst in cleaning up the waterway on everything from industrial junk to consumer appliances that were tossed into its waters. Baros noted the Shenango is living up to its name, which is said to be Iroquois for “the beautiful one.’’

“When native Americans lived here I’m sure it was pristine,’’ she said.

As the industrial revolution and the local population surged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the river took a beating. It became a dumping site for chemicals and unwanted debris. Formed in 2001, River Watchers has hosted trash cleanups attended by scores of local volunteers.

“Without our volunteers this wouldn’t have happened,’’ Baros said of getting the award. “The river is now vastly better than it was.’’

Industrial pollution hasn’t completely faded away. The state Department of Environmental Protection still has a “do not eat” advisory for all fish caught in the Shenango for most of Mercer and Lawrence counties. DEP said the advisory is in place due to high levels of polychlorinated biphenyl being found in fish. Better known as PCB’s, the chemical has been linked to causing cancer.

“But there have been significant amounts of remediation that is making it so much better,’’ Baros said about the river.

There are tangible signs the Shenango is healthier. In 2013, River Watchers discovered a single crayfish during a cleanup. That has changed dramatically.

“Now we find crayfish all the time,’’ Baros said. “Crayfish are very sensitive about where they live.’’

Also, observers have discovered an osprey nest along the river just south of downtown Sharon.

“And we’re seeing (great) blue heron and muskrats all the time,’’ she said. “The river in the downtown has really become much more dynamic in terms of wildlife that people realize.’’

As the winner, River Watchers gets $10,000 from the state for projects in and along the river.

Plans are to use part of the winnings to improve River Watchers’ annual Paddle Fest events, scheduled for June 19 and Oct. 9. Paddle Fest is a fund-raiser for the organization.

The Mercer County Convention and Visitors Bureau plans to market the award to attract tourists for leisurely activities such boating or attending WaterFire Sharon.

This cultural event in downtown Sharon features music, food and entertainment ending at dusk with the lighting of wood in metal baskets floating in the river downtown. This year’s WaterFire is scheduled for July 24 and Sept. 18. Like many other events, WaterFire Sharon was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We definitely want to use this opportunity to promote any event we’re having,’’ Janice Schwanbeck, Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce’s executive director said.

“I think this is going to be a great added feature for not only Greenville, but the whole county.’’

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