A boy runs along the banks of the San Antonio River to watch river parade participants float by.
A boy runs to watch participants in the annual San Antonio River Foundation Mission Reach Flotilla Festival in April 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report
This story has been updated.

Seven years after work on the Mission Reach project ended, Bexar County is set to receive its final reimbursement from the federal government.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has included in its 2020 work plan the final $26 million in reimbursements owed to Bexar County for the Mission Reach project, which transformed an eight-mile stretch of the river south of downtown, U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Laredo) announced Monday. 

“Mission Reach is a tremendous natural and recreational resource for the City of San Antonio,” Cuellar, a senior member of the House Appropriations Committee who has been a strong voice in pushing for the reimbursements, said in a prepared statement. 

The $26 million is the remainder of the $61.3 million in Bexar County funds that were eligible for federal reimbursement. Payments have been coming in waves since 2015.

The more-than-$200-million Mission Reach project, completed in 2013, turned what was once essentially a drainage channel into eight miles of functioning wildlife habitat and park space. A concrete trail lined with public art now connects the city’s Spanish colonial missions. 

To help bring a vibrant ecosystem of fish and wildlife back to the river, the project also created 113 acres of aquatic habitat, including structures that mimic natural riffles and pools. It also lined the river’s edge with native trees, shrubs, and grasses, which have helped boost an increasingly diverse population of birds.

In total, Bexar County contributed $126.5 million to the project, and USACE contributed $57.9 million. The City contributed another $6.5 million, along with $4.7 million from the San Antonio River Foundation, a nonprofit affiliated with the San Antonio River Authority. The San Antonio Water System provided another $6 million in funding for utility relocations. 

To date, the project has received $35.2 million in paybacks from the federal government. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and U.S. Rep. Will Hurd (R-San Antonio) have also worked over the years to secure the funding, Cuellar said. 

“For far too long, our local government has had to bear the financial burden of paying for this project,” Cuellar continued.

Recouping the County’s money has been a struggle in the past, such as in 2018, when officials found out they would be receiving only $4.4 million instead of the expected $25 million in the 2019 federal budget.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, a longtime champion of the Mission Reach, said the County has been reinvesting the payback funds into similar projects on other rivers and creeks, something local officials had committed to doing from the beginning. 

“We said whatever money we get back, we’ll put it back into the waterways,” Wolff said. “I think that was probably one of the reasons why we’re getting it back.”

Last June, Bexar County commissioners approved more than $72.3 million for the most recent stages of the $175 million restoration of San Pedro Creek, a major downtown tributary to the San Antonio River.

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.