Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The San Antonio River Authority is more than two-thirds of the way toward meeting its 2020 goals, according to a rubric the organization uses to measure its progress each year. If it meets these goals, the San Antonio and Medina rivers will be clean enough to swim in, fewer homes will be at risk for flooding, and more people will be aware of the organization's efforts.
Since 2010, the River Authority has been evaluating itself based on what its managers call a River Health Index, sort of like a report card for the river and the organization itself.
Steve Graham, River Authority assistant general manager, said the index started as a way of trying to “measure the unmeasurable.” He acknowledged that the process is somewhat arbitrary since there’s no right way to measure a river authority.
“We try to be pretty rigorous, uniform, and measure every year so we can have a consistent value,” he said. “This whole process is a balance of being subjective and objective.”
Created by the Texas Legislature in 1937, the River Authority is the official steward of the San Antonio River. Its territory includes Bexar, Wilson, Karnes, and Goliad counties.
Every year, the River Authority brings in roughly $30 million from a property tax of 1.73 cents per $100 of assessed value, with a cap of 2 cents set by the Texas Legislature.
Its staff of 280 maintain parks, flood control dams, sewer lines, and some wastewater treatment plants. It also focuses on environmental science, education, and dispersing data about the river.
For 2017, the authority gave itself a score of 6.85, up from the previous year’s value of 6.26. The goal is to reach a 10 by 2020.
Behind that number is a ton of detailed analysis, too much to list in full here. But some of the highlights are worth mentioning:
By 2020, the River Authority wants all segments of the San Antonio and Medina rivers and its main tributaries – Leon, Salado, Cibolo, and Medio creeks – to be clean enough to swim in.
In 2017, 17 out of 25 segments were clean enough to swim in most of the time.
For this goal, the River Authority doesn’t count a period of three days after a heavy downpour. The San Antonio River’s main pollution problem is E. coli bacteria that collect on hard surfaces like asphalt and concrete and wash into the river during storms.
As with much of the index, the River Authority has no direct authority to control pollution, something Graham said made its staff nervous when it set goals like this.
“They were very concerned when we started this,” he said. “They said, ‘You know, we don’t control that whole sphere.’ And we said, ‘You’re right. But we can influence and try to make others do things in a way that will enhance these.’”
The River Authority set a goal of cutting in half the number of structures in its territory that are at high risk of flooding. Officially, these structures fall within the 100-year-floodplain, or places near the river that have a 1-in-100 chance of flooding every year.
The term is important because homeowners who take advantage of federally backed mortgages on homes that lie within the floodplain are required to carry flood insurance. The issue was especially relevant in Houston and other areas affected by Hurricane Harvey last summer.
By 2020, the River Authority wants to cut down the number of structures in floodplains from 18,096 structures to 9,048.
So far, thanks mostly to various drainage and flood projects, that number has been reduced by 3,116, leaving 14,980.
This is another arena in which the River Authority has no direct control, but it has helped out by creating maps, plans, and other data that help inform local governments and developers.
“We’ve had to get out there and help develop watershed master plans that help the City and County pick the best bond projects,” Graham said.
One of the trickier goals to measure is the River Authority’s influence. It has attempted to do so in one way by counting the number of presentations, official publications, requests for services, awards, testimony to elected officials, and members of its staff serving on committees.
The goal is to tally 545 of these by 2020, a 30 percent boost from 2010. So far, it has counted 507, or 93 percent, on the way to its goal.
One major milestone was the International River Foundation choosing the San Antonio River in 2017 for the Thiess International Riverprize, often called the Nobel Prize of rivers. The river beat out rivals in the United Kingdom, Alaska, and the Philippines to get the award.
“Those things show that at least by our peers we’re being recognized as making a difference,” Graham said.