“If it’s possible to fall in love with a river, I fell in love with the San Antonio River.” — Former Mayor Lila Cockrell, in the documentary, “The Story of the San Antonio River.”
Bubbling up from a blue hole on campus at the University of the Incarnate Word, the San Antonio River winds 240 miles through San Antonio, and then South Texas to empty into the Gulf of Mexico. This “ephemeral stream,” as local architect Irby Hightower calls it, rarely reaches more than 10 feet in depth or 45 feet across, yet it has been the lifeblood of San Antonio and surrounding areas for centuries or more.
The beloved waterway now has its own well-deserved documentary – a love letter of sorts, and an apt cap to the San Antonio River Authority’s (SARA’s) 75th Anniversary.
The comprehensive documentary begins at the river’s end, with a sweeping shot of San Antonio Bay, taken from a helicopter.
“Many people in Bexar County don’t realize the river flows all the way to the Gulf of Mexico or the important role it plays in the health of the lower basin as it winds through Wilson, Karnes and Goliad Counties,” said Steven Schauer, SARA’s manager of external relations.
Schauer conceived the idea for the documentary while attending a conference in Portland, Oregon, in May of 2012, where he gave a presentation on the Mission Reach at the annual River Rally conference. There, he watched a short movie about restoring paddling to the Los Angeles River in downtown L.A.
Upon returning to San Antonio, Schauer contacted SARA’s agency, Thompson Marketing, and explained the concept to creative director Adam Stielstra and their team. Thompson and Ten-Eighty Productions donated more than $30,000 in production/editing costs to the $110,675 project, with Wayland Baptist University contributing $5,000. The balance was funded by SARA.
“I have to give kudos to Adam,” said Schauer. “Somehow he got into my head and took the vision I had for this project and actually put it on film. He nailed it.”
Stielstra, who directed the film, describes his avocation as “being on rivers” and fly fishing all over Alaska, Canada and the U.S. “I know rivers, really, really well,” he said.
The Olmos Basin PSAs that Stielstra produced for SARA were picked up and used by the Environmental Protection Agency. Schauer and Stielstra agreed that the documentary should capture the river in its totality–from the headwaters in Bexar County to its mouth in San Antonio Bay.
And it does. Using dozens of interviews and more than 20 on-air appearances by San Antonio river advocates, as well as historians, naturalists and scientists from Wilson and Goliad counties, the one-hour, nine-minute documentary, “Sustaining and Enriching Life in South Texas: the Story of the San Antonio River,” traces its path through South Texas and tracks its history from 12,000 years ago to the present. Bison and mastodon bones mix with native American spear points and darts to portray the earliest days of human habitation along the river.
Then the Spanish moved in and built our now-famous missions, crafting brilliantly engineered acequias to carry water to crops and range land, making the San Antonio River Valley a fertile range and the birthplace of the Texas cattle industry with Longhorn steers as its mascot. A common refrain: “plenty of wood, plenty of water and plenty of stone” for building.
The movie documents the development of San Antonio’s flour mills, breweries, and tourism industries along its river banks, harking on the flash flood alley of Bexar County’s watershed, which often resulted in fatalities when heavy rains occurred. That led to the construction of the Olmos Dam in 1921. When the River Walk hosted its first river parade in 1941, the river’s channelization was aimed more at controlling floodwaters than drawing tourists downtown. Today it does both. By the time Hemisfair took place in 1968, the San Antonio River Walk was one of the top two tourism destinations in Texas.
Recently, the focus has been more on conservation and restoring public access to what devolved into a “drainage ditch.” Ten years ago SARA tackled the ambitious San Antonio River Improvements project. A series of term-limited mayors, including Lila Cockrell, Howard Peak, Ed Garza, Nelson Wolff and Phil Hardberger spearheaded the effort. Hundreds of volunteers, devoted SARA staff and contractors, and the San Antonio River Foundation Board have leveraged the $350 million public private partnership from what “used to be like an open sewer,” as County Judge Nelson Wolff says in the movie, to one of the finest linear urban parks in the country and a role model for all river authorities. The penultimate stretch of the project’s Mission Reach riparian restoration opened over the Easter weekend.
Just like our San Antonio River, this movie belongs to all of us. It will be distributed to libraries and teachers along with study guidelines that show how it can tie into curriculum. The possibility of airing the movie on local TV is currently under discussion. Film festival entrees and hopefully, awards, are in the works. And after free screenings take place starting Saturday and continuing through Thursday the Story of the San Antonio River will be posted online for all to see.
May the love story continue.
Monika Maeckle writes about gardening, butterflies, conservation and the Monarch butterfly migration at the Texas Butterfly Ranch. She covers nature in the urban environment for this website and serves as a volunteer on the SAWS Community Conservation Committee. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @monikam.