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The San Antonio River Authority (SARA) often receives requests to share river management practices with others. Typically, that information can be shared electronically or by meeting with visitors here in San Antonio. However, I have had the opportunity to visit some far-off places to share information about the San Antonio River Watershed and learn about the challenges and successes of other river systems. Sharing information with others around the world undoubtedly strengthens SARA’s river management practices.
The World Bank recognized the water quality success story of the San Antonio River back in 2008. Today, the river typically meets E. coli bacteria standards during normal flow conditions; that could not be said 30 years ago. Due to this dramatic water quality improvement, SARA was invited by the World Bank to meet with government officials in India to provide information and offer assistance to the Indian government which is working to clean up its rivers, including the Ganges River, or Ganga as it is known in India.
I traveled to New Delhi, India in 2010 to present at a conference titled “Global Experiences in River Clean-Up and Basin Management – Relevance for the Ganga.”
The conference was part of the World Bank’s work with the National Ganga River Basin Authority to assist the India National Ganga River Basin Project. While in India, the World Bank also arranged a visit to Chennai for me to present information about SARA to a fledgling river authority created to help restore the Cooum River and other rivers in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
While the San Antonio River is still challenged by non-point source pollution, particularly following rain events, our challenges are nothing like the scale and scope of those facing the Ganga, Cooum and other rivers of India. Standing on the bank of the Cooum River, I witnessed firsthand a river that was more raw sewage than an actual river. That was something I will never forget.
More recently, I had the opportunity to represent SARA at the 2012 World River Forum, held in Daegu, South Korea from September 20 – 21, 2012, and the 2012 World Canals Conference & China Yangzhou World Canal Cities Expo held in Yangzhou, China on September 25 – 27, 2012.
Whereas the trip to India was more related to watershed protection, this recent trip was more focused on the San Antonio River Improvements Project (SARIP). The governments who made the invitation to SARA actually paid for the travel expenses related to attending these speaking engagements; therefore, SARA (i.e. local taxpayers) incurred no cost for participation. However, participation in these conferences did help further raise the international profile of the San Antonio River.
It was a fascinating experience at the World River Forum to listen to the Korean prime minister give his opening remarks to a room full of ambassadors, ministers and other high-ranking officials from developing nations, along with academics and water professionals from around the world. Similar to a United Nations meeting, headphones and interpreters were used to bridge the language barrier.
The two keynote speeches by Paul Kennedy and William Cosgrove included some interesting perspectives on the global importance of river management. Both speakers made clear the fact that water doesn’t care where a political boundary is placed on a map. In fact, without coordinating before the forum, both speakers started their presentation with the iconic Apollo 17 image of the “Blue Planet.” The sentiment that water knows no political boundaries is demonstrated on the local level here in Bexar County through the Bexar Regional Watershed Management (BRWM) partnership. It was reassuring to hear these global perspectives on the need for intergovernmental cooperation and to know that our local community has been collaborating through the BRWM on regional water issues for the past decade.
I participated on a panel discussion regarding governance and the regional economy on the second day of the forum. Other panelists spoke about managing rivers for biofuel production, disaster recovery in Japan following the March 2011 earthquake, river basin economic issues in Korea and Peru and finally the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project. SARA has hosted many visitors from Korea over the past few years who have been involved with or knowledgeable of the $19 billion Four Major Rivers Restoration Project, so it was nice to learn more about this project at the forum. This project is undoubtedly an enormous engineering feat, but it is not without its detractors, some of which label it as environmental devastation, not restoration.
Learning of this controversy, I admit, I felt some pride as I was speaking about the Mission Reach project. The Mission Reach has unified support from across our community, and the project is going to great lengths to restore a native riverine ecosystem. Others took note of this fact as I received several positive comments after the panel ended from audience members who complimented the work being done on the Mission Reach and desired similar ecosystem restoration work to be done in their community.
At the conference in China, I was asked to give a keynote speech during the opening ceremony. My comments followed remarks from the Mayor of Yangzhou, the Communist Party Secretary of Yangzhou, the Minister of Foreign Affairs for China and the Inland Waterways International Chairman. I normally don’t get nervous when speaking publicly, but there were some butterflies in my stomach as I approached the stage, turned and bowed to the audience (following local tradition) and then gave my speech, which was primarily about the Mission Reach.
I participated on a panel discussion later that day regarding canal tourism and economy with nine other panelists from China and Europe. The other panelists shared information about national river and canal systems in Great Britain, France, Netherlands and Poland and even larger systems spanning throughout Europe and across China. This panel discussion was an interesting juxtaposition as all of the other panelists were discussing much larger river and canal systems and I was presenting on the localized SARIP.
Despite the differences in scale, it was clear to me that the San Antonio River belongs in discussions that include the other great tourist rivers of the world such as the Thames, Seine and Danube.
Zhu Mingyang, Mayor of Yangzhou, appears to agree since he commented to me at the conference that San Antonio “leads the world in river tourism” and that he hopes that Yangzhou will one day be a world tourist destination for its Grand Canal just as San Antonio is for its River Walk.
By sharing information with others, I have gained a greater appreciation of the similarities between San Antonio and other areas of the world. Others are grappling with the same river management issues that we face: population growth, flood risk management, economic development, environmental protection, cultural preservation and recreational opportunities. Essentially, the same “triple bottom line” sustainable development issues being raised here on the local level by SARA are also being discussed on the international level. SARA will continue to pass on the lessons we’ve learned to others while picking up new ideas from them, all in an effort to sustain the San Antonio River Watershed.
Steven Schauer has been the Manager of External Communications for the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) since January 2007. Schauer oversees the Intergovernmental & Community Relations Department, which is responsible for intergovernmental, community and media relations as well as education programs for SARA. His major responsibilities include developing and implementing the community and communications programs for all SARA activities and acting as the agency’s spokesman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow SARA on Twitter @sanantonioriver or “like” SARA on Facebook.