Talk About Evolution: San Antonio’s Mission Reach A Collaboration of Planning, Engineering and Nature

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Robert RivardJust about everything I know about blogging I learned from Monika Maeckle, the author of the Texas Butterfly Ranch blog. She also happens to be my wife. Her blog came to life about two years ago, growing out of her passion for the annual Monarch butterfly migration from Canada to Michoacan state in southern Mexico. Our Llano River ranch southwest of Mason, Texas, and San Antonio itself both lie along the migratory path.

Monika calls herself a caterpillar wrangler, butterfly tagger, and citizen scientist. She’s also a Master Gardener. Five years ago she became an active participant in the University of Kansas’ celebrated  Monarch tagging program. When some of the country’s top butterfly scientists started showing up at our ranch to accompany Monika on her rounds, I began to understand the power of a well-written and well-targeted blog with a wide following.

Today, Monika brings her appreciation of nature in an urban setting to The Rivard Report. Her posts will be a regular feature, giving us the opportunity to expand our focus on San Antonio’s central city and environs to include how we live and work in our natural surroundings. After all, isn’t the rebirth of the San Antono River part and parcel of a larger urban metamorphosis? Enjoy. — Robert Rivard

Story and photos by Monika MaeckleMonika Maeckle

As high school students leave band practice at nearby Brackenridge High School late this workday afternoon in February, runners from the neighborhood take to the wide concrete path that leads to the San Antonio Mission Reach.  Some choose a southward route heading toward the historic Missions.  Others run north with King William’s iconic Pioneer Flour Mill in the distance.

Cyclists wheel across a bridge straddling the east and west banks of the San Antonio River.  They share the trail with occasional dog walkers, baby strollers and the ambling evening pedestrian.  Along the river bank, Snowy Egrets stalk dinner, Mallard ducks dive for fish and a raucous Cormorant rips into a crawdad.   As the sun sets, a Greater Blue Heron rises from the riverbank, croaking his familiar squawk.

Bluebonnets are already blooming along the San Antonio Mission Reach

Bluebonnets are already blooming along the San Antonio Mission Reach

This pristine scene is not untouched nature in the wild, but the product of years of human intervention.   San Antonio’s Mission Reach, a landmark riparian restoration, is coming alive after millions of dollars and likely as many hours of complex collaboration among planners, engineers, specialist contractors, scientists, and technologists. As crowds flock to the Witte Museum’s must-see Darwin exhibit that opened  yesterday, a tandem visit to the Mission Reach serves as a lesson in  real-time evolution.

"Plant Lady" Lee Marlowe of San Antonio Mission Reach

"Plant Lady" Lee Marlowe of San Antonio Mission Reach

“I remember a sewer-strewn ditch that was tributary to Salado Creek near my house,” says Lee Marlowe, alluding to progress on the San Antonio River.  Marlowe serves as Natural Resources Management Specialist for the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), which oversees the $246 million restoration.  Marlowe, a biologist known affectionately as “the Plant Lady,” often earns the title of guardian of the project.  But she’s the first to admit it has taken a village.

Cormorants fishing in a riffle on the San Antonio Mission Reach

Cormorants fishing in a riffle on the San Antonio Mission Reach

The MacArthur High School graduate earned her biology degree and was living in Minneapolis working as an ecology consultant when she noticed the job listing at SARA during a visit home for Christmas in 2007. By February of 2008,  she and her daughter had moved to San Antonio with her husband following thereafter.  ”It’s a dream assignment,” she says.

And a complicated one.  The chore of planting thousands of trees, for example, sired its own custom software program.  The software specs considered not only the landscape, San Antonio’s distinct climate, the river’s behavior and traits of Texas native tree species, but the planned recreational use of the nine-mile linear park.  ”You don’t want a thorny tree next to the trail,” says Steven Schauer, SARA’s External Communications Manager.  Nor did SARA want fruit or nut trees near walkways, since they create messy maintenance with their fallen fruits.

A program developed by Jacobs Engineering determined where each of 29,000 trees should be planted

A program developed by Jacobs Engineering determined where to plant each of 29,000 trees--photo courtesy of SARA

Such complexities caused SARA to contract with Jacobs Engineering, an international construction and engineering firm.   “Something like this had never been done before,” says Schauer, adding that the firm wrote a software program taking into account all relevant factors.  Oak trees dislike “wet feet,” for example, so must be placed further from the waterfront; bald cypress, on the other hand, prefers moist environments and can thrive closer to the river.

After inputting all the data, the program developed by Jacobs spit out optimal locations for each of the 39 species and 23,000 trees to be planted along the 113 acres of aquatic habitat and 334 acres of riparian woodlands. Each location is being plotted with GPS coordinates, providing a plant map for installation crews that can be monitored over time.
“This is in no way, shape or form a Johnny Appleseed approach to tree planting,” says Schauer.

Nature engineered in such a way requires hours of ongoing training for maintenance crews and SARA staff , as well as coordination with outside specialists.  Most days on the trail, you’ll see someone from SARA patrolling for nonnative migrants and unruly undesirable species–tasks that sound like border patrol duty, but are all in a day’s work.

“They send us to all kinds of plant identification classes,” says riparian field technician Matthew Reinhard, trolling the trail from his golf cart perch one recent morning.  Rinehard points to day-glow orange painted Silverleaf Nightshade plants that have been marked for removal.  Their yellow cherry-like berries, related to tomatoes–are poisonous and aggressive growers.   Contractors will pull these and other undesirables, he says.

Riparian technicians patrolling the Mission Reach daily

Riparian technicians patrol the Mission Reach daily

As the wildscape continues its evolution, more bugs, butterflies, birds, and wildflowers will occupy its spaces, as will the critters that feed on them.  Will nearby land owners and trail users be able to handle regular encounters with snakes, mosquitoes, raccoons, and yes–coyotes?

Those questions call for continued education and outreach efforts says, Schauer.  ”People will have to learn if they see a snake, to just leave it alone.  It has its place here,” he says.    SARA’s outreach includes proactive media and marketing efforts, including Facebook and Twitter, as well as a webpage devoted to teacher resources and classroom activities associated with the project.   Schools, churches, civic groups, neighborhood associations and other community organizations are often provided with guided tours and presentations by SARA staff.

As Texas rivers continue to be threatened by drought, development and invasive species, a big plus of this project is raising awareness of those issues, says Beryl Armstrong, of Plateau Land and Wildlife Management, a Dripping Springs-based consultancy that helps landowners return their property to a more balanced coexistence with nature.  “All of Texas’ rivers are being changed by the same list of invasive and nonnative plants,” he says.

Snakes merit respect as they return to the Mission Reach --photo courtesy of SARA

Diamondback water snakes (nonpoisonous) merit respect as they return to the Mission Reach --photo courtesy of SARA

The battle with invasive species is a global, never-ending problem in our increasingly mobile society, says Armstrong.  ”The successes, and failures, of control methods in this very public project will be a great opportunity to bring this problem to the urban public’s attention.”

Marlowe notes that active land management, including the simple act of pulling weeds to control undesirable species, has had a more profound positive impact on the river restoration than improving the native land conditions.  Some  ”volunteer” plants (those that find their way into the soil and germinate, unplanned and uninvited)  have enjoyed more success than the 10,000 pounds of wildflower seed that were meticulously planned and planted, she explains.   The common sunflower Helianthus annuus has been a most active volunteer.  ”It did so well we had to thin it out in some locations where it was compromising other plantings,” she says.

Thanks to above-average winter rainfall, SARA staff are hopeful of a banner wildflower showing on the Mission Reach this spring–barring a late season freeze.  Bluebonnets and coreopsis, purple and red Texas sage, Black-eyed Susans and dandelions were all budding this week–an unthinkable prospect just several short years ago.  As the Reach wildscape continues its return to nature, are chances of a Bald Eagle sighting possible some day?

“It is very possible that one will be seen occasionally,” says Armstrong.  ”They don’t mix well with large human populations so it would be unusual to see them very often or on a regular basis.”

For a preview of the wildflower bonanza, check out the slideshow at the Texas Butterfly Ranch.

 




There are 8 comments

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  1. Laura

    The 2012 Texas Master Gardener Conference will be here in May and one of our tours is to be to the Mission Reach. I hope many MG’s sign up for this tour since this is a great project and worthy of the time spent there.

  2. Ken Rivard

    Wow, Monika! Great piece–what an enviable position San Antonio is is with this project. Great strides have been made in cleaning up the Charles River in my locale, but nothing like this scale of restoration. Yesterday there was a piece in the Boston Globe about a 3-foot juvenile sturgeon being spotted in the river, a great sign, but how wonderful it would be to see actual habitat floral species restored to the riverbanks. Fascinating article. Ken

    • Monika Maeckle

      Ken, last year the Charles River project won the ultimate environmental prize from Australia’s International River Foundation, the prestigious RiverPrize. The San Antonio River restoration will be entering this year and we’re keeping our fingers crossed. Thanks for stopping by. –Monika

  3. Rose Catacalos

    Monika, thank you for this comprehensive and in-depth story. I’d not seen anything like its attention to the flora and fauna that are the life of the Reach. Love the Plant Lady! Give us more! ¡Y brava!


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