There is something amazing about 2,500 people of all ages and from all parts of San Antonio showing up on a Saturday morning to clean up litter.
Basura Bash, San Antonio’s annual citywide spring cleanup that began in 1994 with a handful of volunteers meeting at Mission County Park, this year saw thousands wade through muddy creeks, the sprawling Olmos Basin and along 13 miles of the San Antonio River.
The trash collected by this all-volunteer army ultimately will be measured in tons and, based on my own experience Saturday, will include everything from discarded truck tires and other outsized articles to facial masks, dental picks, bits of plastic foam and countless cigarette butts, evidence that litter reflects the world we live in.
Yet so much more remains to be done. One day is not enough, not when it takes endless hours to undo the damage caused by the thoughtless actions of others.
San Antonio has a terrible litter problem, as evidenced by the San Antonio River Authority’s Don’t Let Litter Trash Your River campaign launched last September. With limited staff and funds, the river authority can’t accomplish alone what should be a far more ambitious effort by city and county government.
The volunteers, some of whom I joined at the Olmos Basin early Saturday morning, are big-hearted and dedicated. But what if their valiant efforts supported 1,000 full-time workers hired by the city and county?
SA Ready to Work, the city’s new $180 million job training program, could direct funding to an ongoing citywide cleanup. Bexar County, flush with $389 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, could match the effort. For $50 million, the city and county could create 1,000 new jobs paying $18 an hour plus benefits.
The result would be transformative. Citizens would get to see something they’ve never seen: a clean, green, litter-free San Antonio. Education and marketing outreach could focus on people adopting a litter-free mentality, which exists in many cities all over the world. The effort would generate the kinds of headlines the city covets. And a lot of people currently unemployed or underemployed would be back in the economy, supporting their families.
Local government efforts to address San Antonio’s litter problem have waxed and mostly waned. City Council created Keep San Antonio Clean Community Commission in 1980, joining the Keep America Beautiful program. One year later, Bexar County joined in, but by 2011 Keep San Antonio Beautiful (KSAB) was no longer affiliated with local government and only now is recovering from a former staff member’s misappropriation of funds.
“We are small, but we are passionate about keeping our city beautiful,” said Maggie Hernandez, an environmental project manager at H-E-B and KSAB board president, whose group helped clean up Zarzamora Creek in Leon Valley on Saturday.
For now, the city and county’s public works and parks and recreation departments depend on the goodwill of volunteers.
“It’s exhausting, year after year,” said Tate Coker, an engineer with Jacobs by day and captain of the 40-person Olmos Creek cleanup squad that Monika Maeckle, my wife, and I joined Saturday. Coker stepped into the role to relieve her predecessor. Given the dimension of the litter problem, the work can be overwhelming.
We arrived early and found the Olmos Basin Park parking lot empty save for a lot of random beer cans and bottles and tamale husks left by late-night revelers. Nearby recycling and trash bins were empty. Before we began the creek cleanup we policed the parking lot so volunteers would have places to park.
H-E-B and other sponsors provided breakfast tacos, apples, bottled water and lots of heavy-duty garbage bags.
Roberto Anguiano Sr., one of San Antonio’s true unsung heroes, conceived the idea of Basura Bash not long after he founded the San Jose Neighborhood Association. An Air Force veteran and water engineer whose career included long stints at SARA, the City of San Antonio, and SAWS, Anguiano died in 2017.
Anguiano joined forces with Linda Bradshaw, a real estate agent who lived in the historic King William neighborhood. The two recruited students and other community volunteers each spring to clean the San Antonio River’s Mission Reach south of downtown. Bradshaw later moved away from San Antonio and could not be located.
“From the very beginning, the entire thing has been volunteer-driven,” said Sonia Jimenez, an executive at Ximenes & Associates and the current Basura Bash chairperson. “Back then, we had up to 800 volunteers. Today, it’s 2,500 and I don’t know how many miles of river and creekways we are cleaning, but it’s more than 20 sites around the city. Each one has its own captain and crew, a system that has grown organically without any recruitment effort.”
Click here to see the sites cleaned up Saturday.
The recently formed River Aid San Antonio, with roots on the city’s East Side, has injected new energy into the volunteer cleanup campaign.
“There were eight of us, all connected through Gardopia Gardens on the East Side, and COVID had hit and we decided we had to do something. So our first cleanups were in February and March and on Earth Day in 2021,” said Charles Blank, the group’s founder.
The small group of volunteers, sometimes numbering as many as 50 people, have been turning out three Sundays a month, concentrating their efforts on the Olmos Basin, which looks cleaner than it has in years.
“We are looking to expand. Basura Bash needs to be more than a half-day effort once a year,” Blank said the day before he and others helped clean up Salado Creek. “Doing a quarterly Basura Bash is absolutely on my timeline. If we can establish River Aid chapters at the college campuses we can recruit young people who know the city has a problem and want to do something about it.
“We have to develop a timeline to solve this problem or at least mitigate it.”
River Aid collected 38,000 pounds of trash in 2021. Basura Bash will announce its collection total in the coming weeks.
The city and county should build on the river authority’s yearlong campaign by designing and funding a more comprehensive anti-litter program. Elected officials will find there are is no shortage of volunteers in San Antonio ready to help.