Tonight’s low impact design competition award ceremony at the Pearl Stables marks the continuation of San Antonio River Authority’s (SARA) exploration into what appears to be one of the last frontiers of water quality improvement in San Antonio: stormwater management, the most serious threat to local water quality.
“Water management has to start on land,” said Steven Schauer, SARA manager of external communications. “Which is a mindset change for a lot of people … we don’t have much point-source pollution anymore in our community … now we’re focusing on nonpoint source pollution (from street and land storm runoff).”
Early February, prospective design competitors were presented with the task of developing sustainable, affordable, water-wise plans for their choice of three different properties: a multi-family mixed use residential complex for Port San Antonio – a former Air Force logistics base turned industrial complex just southwest of downtown, an urban redevelopment park design for Hemisfair Park’s Plaza De Artes, and a green roadway for Leon Valley’s frequently flood-damaged Evers Road.
The property owners/planners are not required to model future designs around the winning team’s ideas, but all three have agreed to take them under consideration when considering future development projects.
[Read more about the competition: On Your Mark, Get Set, Design for the ‘Triple Bottom Line’.]
The design team that demonstrates the 1) most cost-effective, 2) environmentally low-impact, and 3) socially viable design for their chosen property will receive a $15,000 prize. The cost of the design competition, event and awards has been largely covered by private donors and sponsorships, Schauer said.
“We hope (this competition) will demonstrate to developers that this ‘triple bottom line’ approach doesn’t have to be more expensive,” said Suzanne Scott, SARA general manager. Projects can avoid impact fees and costly maintenance by ditching the traditional, 1950’s way of thinking: just “get water off the property and into a pipe as fast as you can,” and replacing it with a more holistic way of treating the water on-site by using the environment’s natural water-polishing mechanisms.
LID features “polish,” or clean, urban runoff by using vegetation, soil and rocks to filter out pollution like bacteria, trash, agricultural waste and excess nutrients, before it gets to the river.
LID does not replace major flood management practices, Schauer said, but it can ease the pressure on those systems and reduce the deleterious impacts of smaller rain events that San Antonio experiences. Bacteria levels rise to dangerous, fish-killing levels after such events, he said.
After four months, eight design teams remain in the LID competition after a panel of “expert” judges scored the teams on mainly technical aspects of LID practices. Points acquired from this first round account for 80% of final team scores. Tonight, these teams will present their designs via quick seven-minute presentations to a VIP jury that will include 16 local community leaders and U.S. Environemtal Protection Agency’s Assistant Administrator for Water Nancy Stoner.
[Rivard Report Director and co-founder Robert Rivard will be emceeing the event which starts at 6 p.m. at the Stables in the Pearl Brewery complex.]
Stoner was invited by SARA to be a VIP judge.
“Most VIP judges are from the local community, but we thought it would be good for people to see the national relevancy of LID (by having an EPA representative judge),” Schauer said. SARA also hopes these VIPs will spread the LID word amongst their respective business, organizational and political colleagues.
Stoner and her colleague William Honker, director of EPA Water Quality Protection Division for Texas and surrounding states, took a brief tour of the Mission Reach and was given a run-down, by Schauer, of the broader San Antonio River Improvements Project and River Walk Implementation Project this morning.
Stoner said she was impressed with the ongoing work of the City, Bexar County, SARA and the San Antonio River Foundation to make the river “be a piece of community identity.” That, she said, makes the most important ingredient to water quality improvement and project success – public awareness and education – easier because the public can see “how water resources enhances their lives.”
“It’s all about how people live on the land,” Stoner said of the growing, national trend of cities and developers looking into LID for water quality and management purposes. “It’s not about giving up something, it’s about developing (the land) so it performs its natural functions … we’ve been interfering with these natural processes for too long.”
LID competitions are a Texan invention, starting in Houston several years ago. SARA and the San Antonio chapter of Texas Land/Water Sustainability Forum developed this local competition and similar efforts have spread to Dallas, New York, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania, and other major U.S. cities.
It may seem a bit strange for an organization that works with water health to be poking around in land development practices, but it makes sense when you consider how watersheds work. If a drop of water hits land in or around the city, it’ll either be absorbed into the soil and be filtered in the Edwards Aquifer or it will be channeled into the San Antonio River.
“Once it reaches the river, there’s very little we can do … there is no stormwater treatment plant,” Schauer said. As a part of the SA2020 Initiative, SARA has taken on the role of managing land-use and its effects on water quality. While there are still some point source pollution problems like sewage spills and other accidents, “if we want to continue on this up-tick (improvement) of water quality,” he said, “Nonpoint source pollution is the next level.”
Stormwater treatment plants are not the answer, Stoner said. “Stormwater runoff is too decentralized to treat … it would be unusual and not cost effective” – the rest of the nation is going towards LID, she said. “We have to use landscape to reach these (water quality) goals … (developers) need to think about water at the beginning of a project instead of the end.”
So far, Shauer said, LID practices has gotten very little attention from local developers – which is what the competition hopes to change by calling attention to these practices and demonstrating that “sustainable” doesn’t have to mean “pricey.”
San Antonio River water hasn’t reached “contact recreation” quality in anyone’s recent memory at SARA. “Willful body contact with water is prohibited per City Code,” according to the City’s Parks and Recreation website, and it’s SARA’s hope that LID could be a large part of changing that in the future.