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If the San Antonio River could talk, she could share a first-hand account of the evolution of the culture and development of our city.
The river has been there supporting the life of the first settlements more than 10,000 years ago, the trade of the indigenous peoples, the farms and religious functions of the Spanish colonial missionaries, the main-attraction of a top tourist destination in the nation and the enjoyment of families recreating along her banks. If you are not familiar with these historic connections to the river, I encourage you to watch a documentary film produced by the San Antonio River Authority.
It is the San Antonio River, and its tributaries, that connects our shared past to the present, and must continue to be a valued foundation for our future quality of life.
The indigenous people knew that water is life and that the natural spring-fed San Antonio River and the nearby San Pedro Creek with its abundant fish and vegetation provided the perfect source for the establishment of the first settlements. Later the Spanish colonial missionaries recognized the importance of these water sources and the San Antonio River became the heart of the function and use of the Spanish Colonial missions. The river provided water and food and the acequias brought water from the river to irrigate nearby fields. For more than 265 years, the Espada acequia has been providing water to farm fields masterfully illustrating the connection the river makes between humans and river and between the past and present.
This important connection to the river was not lost in the UNESCO World Heritage application process. The review of the application stated that “the justification for the serial approach (i.e. considering all the missions in the one application) is predominately based on the linkages between the missions along the San Antonio River.”
The application submission document further notes the importance of having the river-fed acequia system: “These water distribution systems eminently illustrate an exceptionally important interchange between indigenous peoples, missionaries, and colonizers that contributed to a fundamental and permanent change in the cultures and values of all involved, but most dramatically in those of the Coahuiltecans and other indigenous hunter-gatherers who, in a matter of one generation, gave up a lifestyle of seasonal movement and became successful settled agriculturists.”
Our connection to the river is sometimes difficult. Floods have caused damage to property and the tragic loss of life. Our historic response to flooding has been to implement flood management techniques that resulted in a severely degraded riverine system through straightening and hardening our natural waterways. Today’s engineering technology offers methods to restore the river to a more natural, meandering condition, while preserving, and oftentimes enhancing, the flood management elements. The San Antonio River Improvements Project (SARIP), a multi-year, $384.1 million public investment utilized these more environmentally sensitive methods to restore 13 miles of the river channel, from Brackenridge Park, south to Mission Espada.
A success report on the value of these recent river enhancements was recently provided demonstrating how we are once again connecting to the river for mutual benefit. The Rivard Report covered this story, but there are some items worth repeating. The connection between the river and our economy remains strong as nearly $600 million in private residential and commercial investment has occurred along the river since 2013. The connection between the river and a healthy aquatic and riparian habitat is becoming strong again as evidenced by the 156 native plant and 123 bird species identified along the river within the bounds of the project.
The City of San Antonio’s very successful Howard W. Peak Greenway trails network is yet another example of how our creeks play a valuable role in connecting us to each other and back to nature. There are already more than 52 miles of trails along the creeks within the larger San Antonio River Watershed, creating a “green necklace” around the city that connects north to south, east to west. The River Authority is serving as project manager for the City on the completion of trails along the Alazan, Apache, Martinez and San Pedro creeks creating a direct connection from the Mission Reach to Elmendorf Lake. City Council recently approved an additional investment to expand the greenway trails and will also add links between the trail network and adjacent neighborhoods to further enhance connections to and use of the trails.
Unfortunately, some connections between us and the river are still unpleasant. During 2015, the River Authority staff collected more than 243,000 pounds of trash from the river, including 387 tires. This accounted for more than 4,000 staff hours of effort. Additionally, data from the River Authority water quality monitoring indicates that pollutants carried by stormwater runoff are the greatest threat to stream health, and of all these pollutants, the largest stormwater runoff (or non-point source pollution) concern in the San Antonio River Watershed is elevated levels of E. coli bacteria. The River Authority’s scientists have used this data to demonstrate a clear correlation between stormwater runoff and elevated bacteria levels in the river. A negative consequence of these elevated E. coli bacteria levels is that numerous creek and river segments throughout the San Antonio River Watershed do not meet primary contact recreation criteria as set by the State.
As a result of failing to meet this criteria, there are portions of the San Antonio River and its tributaries that are on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) impaired streams list. The River Authority believes reducing stormwater pollution is an essential element of achieving a sustainable environment in the San Antonio River Watershed and to removing the San Antonio River and its tributaries from the EPA’s impaired streams list. We are all connected to the river and its tributaries, and it will take some effort from each of us to support watershed sustainability.
Looking ahead, the San Antonio River and its tributaries will remain inextricably connected to us. The $3.1 billion annual economic impact of the San Antonio River Walk will continue to connect us economically to the river. Construction will soon begin on the Bexar County-funded San Pedro Creek Improvements Project. As a culture park, the improvements will bring life back to the creek and reconnect us to our heritage and history. In May 2018, our community will celebrate the 300th anniversary of the city along the banks of the newly restored San Pedro Creek, going full circle back to the birthplace of San Antonio.
As the River Authority’s general manager, it’s my job to speak for the river; once, I literally did that as a speaker in a local TEDx San Antonio event. Our city is here because of the river and we must be her stewards. If the San Antonio River could talk, it is my belief that she would be proud of her value as a connector of people, places and life and she would be optimistic about her future and her health.
As a natural resource, she knows that the more we appreciate and value the river and its tributaries, the more we will work to protect them.
Top image: Trail counters have logged nearly 1.7 million visitors to the Museum Reach and Mission Reach since 2013. Photo by Al Rendon for the San Antonio River Authority,