Throughout this week, Rivard Report readers will hear directly from some of the change agents and protagonists behind the redevelopment of the Southside. Our series will explore the economic, cultural and environmental renaissance underway. We also welcome submissions from people who read the series and have their own perspective to share on a rising Southside. [Read more: "It's The Decade of Downtown, But Don't Miss San Antonio's Rising Southside.]
Although my roots in the Southside were established at a very young age, my affinity for the San Antonio River developed much later. I spent much of my childhood at my grandmother’s house on Felisa Street, just blocks from Mission Concepción and within a short bike ride of the San Antonio River.
However, my family never picnicked along the river’s banks or even thought of the river as a place to visit—it was, after all, a drainage ditch, not a place to play, and just something we glanced down at as we travelled the roads of the neighborhood.
How did a natural resource so vital to the life of the early Spanish missionaries who established the historic Missions along its banks become a drainage ditch cutting through the Southside? As San Antonio grew in population upstream, increasing urbanization created more run-off and larger flood events, and in 1954, Congress authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps) to provide better flood conveyance in San Antonio.
This resulted in 31 miles of channelization of the San Antonio River south of downtown and the San Pedro, Apache, Martinez and Alazan Creek tributaries to the river. Although the channelization effectively managed the flood water, it damaged the river’s ecosystem and made the river an unappealing drainage ditch.
Many disheartened Southside residents and property owners, who for generations relied upon and enjoyed the resources of the San Antonio River, questioned the Corps channelization project and were disappointed with the degradation to the ecosystem in the name of flood control. Members of the community began to explore restoration of the river in the 1970s soon after the Corps completed its project. Then, throughout the 1990s, the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), Bexar County and the City of San Antonio conducted studies and developed conceptual ideas aimed at restoring portions of the river.
Decades of work by many residents who cherish the river and the historic Missions developed the Mission Trails that brought limited recreational access back to the banks of the river through a bike lane and trail network. Then in 2000, Congress authorized the Corps to explore ecosystem restoration and recreation improvements to the San Antonio River south of downtown and the Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project was born.
Now, 13 years later, construction of the Mission Reach project is nearing completion. I have been involved with the project since 1997 and have helped shepherd it through its many twists and turns in funding challenges; changes in elected representation in Congress and locally; transitions in stakeholder interest; debates over project design; and many other obstacles that could have threatened the project’s completion.
Fortunately, the consistent community stakeholder leadership and advocacy throughout the Mission Reach project’s development from San Antonio River Oversight Committee Co-Chairs, Mayor Emeritus Lila Cockrell and Alamo Architects principal Irby Hightower, has been critical to overcoming the many hurdles this public project has faced. In addition, the strong leadership from Bexar County County Judge Nelson Wolff and Commissioners Chico Rodriguez, Paul Elizondo, Tommy Adkisson and Kevin Wolff, along with the backing of the local electorate, ensured the project’s funding security with the approval of the Visitors Tax in May 2008.
Without the Judge and Commissioners serving as consistent champions for the Mission Reach, the improvements to the river enjoyed by residents today and for generations to come would never have occurred.
The eight miles of the Mission Reach extend from Lone Star Boulevard to Mission Espada, and today, six miles of the project down to Mission San Juan are open with the remaining two miles to be opened soon. A community grand opening for the entire project will be held on Saturday, Oct. 5 (repairs from the Memorial Day weekend flooding delayed the original opening in August).
[Read More: "Rain Date: Historic San Antonio River Mission Reach Party."]
Life has returned to the San Antonio River, and along with it, a renewed sense of pride in this vibrant natural resource. Visiting the Mission Reach you will be pleasantly surprised with the diversity of people, plants and wildlife enjoying the restored ecosystem.
Paddling, fishing, picnicking, walking, biking and bird watching are all activities that are bringing people back to the river.
The restoration of the ecosystem through the addition of wetland areas (called embayments), riffles, meanders in river’s course, and hundreds of acres of native grasses and wildflowers and 23,000 native trees and shrubs have transformed the river into a healthy aquatic system teaming with fish, birds, turtles and other native species.
The Mission Reach looks much different than the historic San Antonio River Walk and the new Museum Reach area north of downtown. The native landscape along the banks is more natural rather than formally landscaped. The engineering of the project ensures that the restored river continues to provide the much needed flood protection.
As the Mission Reach fully transitions from a construction project into a linear river park, SARA is responsible for its maintenance, operation, event management, recreational programming and general use and upkeep of the park. The Mission Reach will be open daily from dawn to dusk. The City of San Antonio Park Police provides the security. Other partners such as Bexar County, the National Park Service and the San Antonio River Foundation have existing and future park plans and events along the river further enhancing the Mission Reach as a premier destination on the Southside.
Although the improvements to the river have been transformational, to sustain the river and its ecosystem long-term requires a broader understanding and appreciation of the functions of a watershed in a growing urbanized community. The San Antonio River Watershed that ultimately flows into the Mission Reach is huge, including a drainage area that covers most of the city of San Antonio.
Rain events wash trash, debris, pollutants and other contaminants from parking lots, streets, roof tops, and drainage culverts into a tributary or directly into the San Antonio River. The river experiences high bacteria levels following rain events and also accumulates tons of trash and debris. While the water quality is presently fine for paddle recreation, the river does not currently meet the State Contact Recreation Standard.
SARA is leading activities within the region to promote sustainable land use that preserve natural watershed functions to manage the quality and quantity of stormwater runoff. Sustainable projects and efforts advanced by SARA strive to strengthen the compatibility between the environmental and human uses within the watershed. More application of Low Impact Development (LID) techniques in future development, for example, can better manage stormwater runoff and improve water quality.
By working together, the San Antonio community can help keep the San Antonio River, clean, and in doing so, you will help the Mission Reach attain its full economic, environmental and quality of life potential. To learn more about sustainability and how you can help protect the watershed, please visit SARA’s website at www.sara-tx.org.
As a child of the Southside, I am honored to be part of the Mission Reach project and to witness the transformation of the river from the drainage ditch of my childhood back into a place of community pride. What was once the lifeblood for the Spanish missionaries, is today a vital spark in the resurgence of the Southside.
As the chief executive officer of the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), Suzanne Scott is responsible to an elected Board of Directors, directs SARA’s programs, projects and efforts and manages the agency’s annual budget. She oversees and works with a talented staff of over 220, including engineers, scientists, environmental managers, field crews and a host of other professionals to extend SARA’s environmental leadership, stewardship and expertise and broaden appreciation for the San Antonio River and its ecosystem. SARA’s website is www.sara-tx.org. You can follow SARA on Twitter at @sanantonioriver or like SARA on Facebook at @sanantonioriver.