Warning blast: RiverQuest’s mission has hit rough water

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It’s not an occasion to sing that famous line from “The Music Man” — “Trouble, oh we got trouble, right here in River City!” — but this concern begins with a B and it involves the rivers. That B stands for boat — RiverQuest’s Explorer — which is in danger of having its environmental education mission sunk for lack of funds.

RiverQuest, a nonprofit which began in 1991 as Pittsburgh Voyager Inc., has been taking students on the rivers since 1995 for environmental science outings. At first it used two retrofitted World War II patrol boats. Since 2009, Explorer, a custom-built hybrid vessel, has been plying local waters.

More than 100,000 school students have had this unique experience, and some 10,000 are expected to do so this year — that is, if RiverQuest can stay financially afloat. The nonprofit is not in debt; it just doesn’t have the funding to sail on with its mission.

RiverQuest president Jim Roddey said its programs became a victim of education cuts when federal stimulus money disappeared. Some schools could no longer afford to send their students, and $500,000 in state support disappeared. Although RiverQuest cut its annual budget — from $2.2 million to $1.1 million — it can’t go on much longer without a new source of funds.

The program would like to merge with the Carnegie Science Center, where the boat is docked, and this would seem to be a natural fit for its scientific mission. But a decision from the science center may not come before the end of the calendar year and RiverQuest needs to know by the end of its fiscal year, which is June 30.

Mr. Roddey says a possible partnership with the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources has also been discussed and the Port of Pittsburgh and RiverLife may be able to help with funding. At this stage only a warning blast is being sounded on the horn, but it should be heard across the region.

RiverQuest has introduced a generation of kids to a love of the rivers and its mission isn’t hugely expensive — for the good it does, it’s a bargain. 

Although it wouldn’t be Trouble with a capital T if it went away, in a region that has taken a new pride in its rivers it would be a Shame with a capital S.

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