Prove your humanity

This story is part of our series, Wild Pennsylvania. Check out all of our stories here

It’s awards season, and the nominations are in. So, which river will win Pennsylvania’s 2024 River of the Year? It’s up to you.

Three nominated rivers were chosen as finalists in the annual competition by the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and the Pennsylvania Organization for Watersheds and Rivers. The group that nominated the winning river receives a $10,000 grant for celebration activities on or along the waterway.

The public gets to vote online. Here are the candidates.

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The Allegheny River

A bridge over the Allegheny River

Photo credit: Melanie’s Photography, courtesy of Three Rivers Waterkeeper

The Allegheny River flows over 300 miles from New York and northwestern Pennsylvania until it meets the Ohio River.

“This river is really unique,” said Heather Hulton VanTassel the executive director of Three Rivers Waterkeeper. “It goes through a variety of different types of landscapes: agriculture, forested landscape, and flows into our urban center in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”

She said herons dip into the water, and deer swim to the small islands between its banks. Though an engineered lock and dam system keeps the water deep enough for barges to navigate, Hulton VanTassel says they’ve noticed a comeback of the natural floodplain where some tributaries meet the Allegheny.

“We’re seeing these emerging little ecosystems starting to happen where we have that ephemeral change of it floods, it dries up,” she said. “And that’s really exciting, knowing that nature persists.”

A persistent challenge for the Allegheny River, though, is the region’s outdated combined sewer overflow systems, where stormwater flushes sewage into it.

“We have federal laws that say that we shouldn’t have an overflow of untreated water going directly into our waterways. But we do,” she said.

Billions of dollars are being used to reduce the amount of untreated sewage and stormwater going to the river, thanks to EPA consent agreements. Plans include adding tunnels and using green infrastructure to divert or soak up stormwater. 

The Youghiogheny River

Sun peaking through the clouds over trees and a curve of the Youghiogheny River.

Photo credit: Michael Liddick, courtesy of Mountain Watershed Association

Pollution has also been a long-time problem for our second nominee, the Youghiogheny River, where industries historically lined its banks. Environmental advocates have been cleaning up the legacy acid mine drainage, or AMD,  from coal mining, for decades. 

Eric Hhttps://mtwatershed.com/arder works for Mountain Watershed Association as the Youghiogheny Riverkeeper.

“There’s been so many great efforts to clean up those areas,” he said. “We’re now seeing other pollution that are coming forth as problems because they’re not hidden or blanketed by the AMD issues, especially bacteria.”

But issues like these don’t stop Harder from boasting about the river he knows so well.

“If you’ve never heard of the Youghiogheny River, we call it the crown jewel of Pennsylvania,” he said.

The Yough makes its way from West Virginia and Maryland, where there is world-class white water rafting,  through western Pennsylvania, where you’ll find the iconic Ohiopyle State Park, until it empties into the Monongahela River south of Pittsburgh. 

“For me,” Harder said, “the special parts are not only the recreation opportunities that are here, what you can do outside, but some of the other cultural connections that you can make with our area and the history that it’s had.”

There’s the industrial heritage, he said, but also Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater is in the watershed, and you can explore history, geology and native plants.  

The Lackawaxen River

The Lachawaxen River running through a town with a bridge and white church.

The Lackawaxen runs through Honesdale in northeastern Pennsylvania. Photo credit: James Hamill, courtesy of Lackawaxen River Trails

And the third river? They’re just happy to be nominated.

“This is a small river in comparison to the Youghiogheny and the Allegheny, and we’re so excited to have positive press around it whether or not we win,” said Ryanne Jennings, president and CEO of the Wayne County Community Foundation,

But she hopes people will consider the underdog in the northeast: the Lackawaxen, a tributary of the Delaware River that’s just 31 miles long.  

The Lackawaxen, she said, is a pristine river that’s mostly been ignored.

“It’s kind of an untouched, an untapped resource in our community,” said Jennings.

Herr group administers funds for Lackawaxen River Trails, a grassroots volunteer organization that has been working for seven years on better access to the Lackawaxen.

“We wanted to have more trails and access to be able to launch kayaks or tubes or canoes into the river,” she said.

One of the challenges in creating water and land access in the mountainous topography is that it takes a lot of time.

“You’re dealing with land ownership. You’re dealing with municipalities and county government,” Jennings said. “That takes a lot of collaboration and relationship building, building of trust, which just takes time.”

She said while industrial pollution isn’t an issue on the Lackawaxen, sometimes trash and litter are, and they’ve worked with local partners with cleanups.

Vote online for your favorite nominee for 2024 River of the Year until 5 p.m. on January 19.