The dark cormorants clumsily take flight as our kayaks approach their shallow resting place. Snowy egrets hang like kites in the sky overhead. Along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River, cyclists speed by strolling families, kids swim in the shallows at Padre Park, a young couple trains a leashed pup how to swim, using a fetching stick to acclimate the young dog to the water.
We are trying out the kayak chute at Padre Park, two among 10 or so kayakers exploring the newly opened reaches of the river on a clear, warm Sunday. Two more miles of the river leading south of downtown are now open for recreation. By summer’s end, the entire 8.5-mile stretch should be finished.
We head south toward the Espada Dam and the next chute, bird watching and eyeing the progress of the plantings along the steep river banks, a curiosity to families along the way, children exclaiming at their very first sight of a kayak.
To our surprise, other kayakers appear on the horizon, coming up river. We aren’t the only ones paddling the waters this weekend, and we imagine a day soon when many will take to the reclaimed river.
The rebirth of the San Antonio River has been an extraordinary multi-year, locally managed project, one that slowly took shape and found funding though the administrations of six or more mayors, from the Lila Cockrell era to the present. Years passed by as local officials waited for federal funds that never arrived.
Eventually, one of those mayors, Nelson Wolff, became county judge, and officials decided to stop waiting. Mayors named Howard Peak, Ed Garza, Phil Hardberger and now, Julián Castro, all deserve a share of the credit, all made the project a priority. The San Antonio River Authority, under the leadership of General Manager Suzanne Scott, is the lesser-known key to the project’s success.
Now, with only local funding and leadership, a channelized creek has been brought back to life as a narrow river and wildscape, a linear park in a stretch of the city rich in history but poor in public space.
It’s a quietly glorious sojourn as we paddle south and savor nature only a few miles from the heart of the city. But the sharp odor rising from the water at the chute south of Espada Dam reminds us that we are in bacteria-laden waters, and we wonder if children should be allowed to swim in it and what health risks they face by doing so.
As the native plantings along the river banks take root, the runoff into the river will be slowed and filtered, and projects such as the wastewater processing plant at the San Antonio Zoo will reduce the fecal matter count, but much more remains to be done to improve water quality. It’s a complex problem to clean moving water in a city.
It isn’t easy to change San Antonio’s culture of littering, either – this is depressingly evident as we make our way along banks and a retaining pond that act as a trash catchment area. Plastic bags and bottles, styrofoam cups, fast food wrappings, and beer cans litter the river. The river bottom is lined with trash: an abandoned shopping cart, discarded automobile tires, a length of metal pipe, and above all, beer cans thrown from bridges and byways.
We retrieve as much as we can carry in a kayak, but it’s a mere sampling of what we see and leave behind. Later, back on a Padre Park sidewalk, the litter forms a pathetic collage, a reflection of a city’s worst values. A Centro San Antonio crew, tasked with cleanup duty on the Mission Reach walkways, eyes our efforts in the water and is waiting for us when we make landfall back at Padre Park. They help dispose of the trash we collected. We talk about the difficulty pulling tires off the river bottom.
The river litter is not a city or county or SARA problem. It’s a people problem. People litter, and government can only do so much to clean up in the endless cycle. It’s like blaming local government for stray animals. These are people problems, and the fact they exist so visibly in San Antonio says things about us we would rather not confront.
Fiesta, the annual spring celebration, starts this week. Fiesta is many things: parades, parties, rituals of faux royalty, coronation and Cornyation, confetti-filled cascarones, eating and drinking festivals. It also is when the people of San Antonio trash their city, acting thoughtlessly along the parade routes and at other venues. City government has slowly and finally started to push back, urging an end to the litter, providing more refuse receptacles, introducing recycling, talking about it to citizens.
But the post-party and parade cleanup is still an embarrassment. Progressive cities convince their populations to embrace new values that better protect and enhance the shared environment. It could be the next big step for San Antonio: Can we show transformational change in the way we personally behave with an empty beer can or crumbled burger wrapper in our hand?
Perhaps this year will be different. If not, our only choice is to parade and paddle through the garbage left behind by our very neighbors.