2012 Pennsylvania Recreational Water Trails Economic Impact Study A Four-Trail Case Study

Uses studied:
Place: Schuylkill River, Susquehanna-North Branch, Juniata River, and Three Rivers (Pittsburgh)


Water trails in Pennsylvania are popular with resident anglers and paddlers, as are shoreline activities like picnicking and wildlife viewing. A sample of four of the state’s 21 water trails were associated with 14,000 visitor days over a six-week period in late summer, and $537,000 in spending.


This careful, statistically representative study is relevant for those interested in conducting in-person interviews across a long trail, water or otherwise. The authors developed a random sampling plan that covers a range of access points, times of day, and days of the week, while clustering the sampling locations to make data gathering more efficient. The survey instrument is concise and constructed to maximize the accuracy of responses and the proportion of respondents who complete the survey.

The authors are careful not to extrapolate their six-week sampling period to the whole year. However, the economic impacts for communities near the water trails may be overstated because many trail visitors live nearby and their spending may not represent new economic activity.


The study focused on four water trails: the Schuylkill River (128 miles), the Susquehanna-North Branch (181 miles), Juniata River (142 miles), and Three Rivers (38 miles). The water trails are flat water and, with the exception of the urban Three Rivers trail, pass through small towns and rural areas.

Trail Type

This study addresses four water trails across Pennsylvania. All trails are flat water and open to fishing, motor boating, and paddling.


The purpose of this study is to better understand use patterns and economic impacts to inform discussion about public investment in the state’s 21 water trails among trail advocates, local governments, and state agencies.

This study was commissioned by the Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee.


  • During the six-week study period there were approximately 6,000 visitor days on the Schuylkill River, 5,000 visitor days on the Susquehanna, 2,000 visitors on the Three Rivers, and 1,000 visitors on the Juniata River.
  • Ninety-one percent of visitors were from Pennsylvania.
  • Nearly 40 percent of visitors identified fishing as the primary reason for their trip. Visitors reported fishing an average of 17.8 days per year.
  • Canoeing, kayaking, or paddling were the primary reason for visiting for 24 percent of respondents. Twenty-nine percent of visitors identified activities that were not water based as their primary reason for visiting, including picnicking, relaxing, enjoying river scenery, photography, and wildlife viewing.
  • Half of visitors learned about the trail because they live nearby.
  • Eighty-five percent of visitors were on day trips. Of those planning to stay longer than one day, half planned a three day trip. Across user types, canoers, kayakers, or other paddlers were the most likely to spend multiple days on the trip (29%).
  • Forty percent of visitors identified an interest in protecting water quality.
  • Median expenditures varied across visitors’ primary activity. Median paddler expenditures were $40 per day; motor boaters and anglers were $35 per day; tubers, swimmers, and photographers were $10 per day.
  • Visitor expenditures over the six week sampling period were $537,000. Because they do not separate local from non-local visitors, this number is higher than the actual economic impact of the water trails.
  • “Multiplier” refers to how much economic activity is generated for each dollar spent by visitors. The authors estimate that motor boaters have the highest multiplier, generating $2.81 for every dollar spent. However, because they made up a small proportion of visitors (8%), their overall economic impact is small. Anglers generated $2.36 for every dollar spent. Because they also had the highest visitation, their economic impact is the greatest.


The study conducted in-person interviews with visitors during a six week sampling period from July to September. Because the sampling period was relatively short, the authors do not make any extrapolations to annual use. The survey instrument was succinct with 16 questions and focused only on the respondent’s current visit to increase data accuracy. Data were collected via iPad, which automatically provided precise interview locations and expedited survey data transfer into the database.

The authors used a clustered sampling design to ensure that access points, days of the week, and times of the day were represented randomly, while recognizing the challenges of gathering data over a very large geographic area. They interviewed 352 visitors during the six-week period.

The authors used visitation and expenditure data from the survey as inputs into a regional economic model, IMPLAN.


ICF Macro, Inc. 2012 Pennsylvania Recreational Water Trails Economic Impact Study A Four-Trail Case Study. Harrisburg, PA: Pennsylvania Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, 2012