Robert Rivard

Let’s face it, San Antonio: We have an embarrassing litter habit, and we need to break it. Unlike improving inner city education outcomes or building residential density downtown, cleaning up our act shouldn’t take until 2020. Let’s start now and see what can be accomplished by, say, the close of Fiesta 2014.

People who litter are greatly outnumbered by the people who take pride in San Antonio, our namesake river, and the health of our urban environment. People want local leaders to seize the moment and make change happen. Take a few minutes to peruse the many heartfelt and thoughtful comments posted in response to our Monday story, Fiesta on the San Antonio River’s ‘Garbage Reach.’

A river runs through it: Fiesta garbage litters the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. Photo by Robert Rivard
A river runs through it: Fiesta garbage litters the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. Photo by Robert Rivard

The truth is, local leaders already are doing a lot. And there are plans to do more. But most of the efforts are focused on expensive cleanup operations. More work needs to be done to educate people and create a culture where littering outdoors, like smoking indoors, is no longer tolerated.

The best efforts of public workers, unfortunately, are undone with each major “litter event,” as one official I spoke with called Fiesta. While some of us have been writing and talking about the problem, people who work for the City of San Antonio, Centro San Antonio and the San Antonio River Authority have been furiously cleaning up and erasing any evidence of our city’s less flattering side.

Heavy rain highlights our littering problem on the banks of the Mission Reach (left). A few days later, SARA staff members clean up after us (right). Photos courtesy of SARA.
After a heavy rain in April 2013, our littering problem is exposed on the banks of the Mission Reach (left). A few days later, SARA staff members clean up after us (right). Photos courtesy of SARA.

“We’re down there (the Mission Reach) today, all over it, I can give you all the gory details,” said Steven Schauer, SARA’s external communications manager.

For 18 months now, SARA has been promoting its Watershed Wise program, intended to educate the public to avoid the very rain-swept litterfest that hit the San Antonio River’s Mission Reach this past weekend. Ads promoting the program have been appearing in local media, including the Rivard Report, in an effort to help people understand that what gets discarded on the ground eventually ends up in the San Antonio River.

Even as this article posts, officials are trying to trace the source of an ugly oil or grease spill Saturday night on to the banks and into the waters of the Museum Reach at the VFW Post 76 on 10th Street, a rain-swept slick of pollutants that raced across Avenue B, through a parking lot and into the vegetation and river.  The evidence suggests that a commercial kitchen inappropriately disposed of waste on the street, which was then washed away by the storm that caused the cancellation of the Fiesta Flambeau parade.

Numbers are the “gory details” that best tell the story of the post-Fiesta cleanup efforts. Centro Amigos – those friendly men and women in the colorful shirts that tidy up downtown sidewalks and plazas and tool around the Museum Reach and Mission Reach in four-wheelers, hauled off 11,200 pounds of trash from the Mission Reach and 5,500 pounds from the Museum Reach during Fiesta.

Trash collects at a pedestrian crossing on the San Antonio River along the Mission Reach trail, including bags of recycling. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Trash collects at a pedestrian crossing on the San Antonio River along the Mission Reach trail, including bags of recycling. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

SARA contracts with the Centro Amigos ahead of time, knowing that Fiesta crowds generate tons of trash along the river. Interestingly, the Mission Reach breakdown was 448 bags of landfill garbage and only 291 bags of recyclables. That suggests a lot of people are thoughtlessly disposing of paper, plastic and cans in the regular garbage.

After Saturday’s “rain event,” workers found the downstream stretches of the river, and its banks, walk ways and trails, trashed. Since then a platoon of SARA workers in boats and on foot, have been busy cleaning the river and untangling litter from the recently planted grasses and wildflowers that are now in full bloom.

The cleanup involves multiple boats, trailers and 27 fulltime people. Crews this week have collected 1,200 pounds of loose litter and removed 25 cubic yards of thatch and litter. It takes a massive volume of cans, plastic, styrofoam and paper to add up to 1,200 pounds. It will take a full week and half to complete the cleanup.

“The San Antonio River Authority is proud to be responsible for the operations and maintenance of the Mission Reach, and is dedicated to helping the ecosystem restoration flourish and grow while at the same time keeping the project safe and enjoyable for recreational users,” said SARA General Manager Suzanne B. Scott.  “When it rains, a significant part of the city actually drains into the Mission Reach directly through downtown or from tributaries that feed into the river south of downtown.  Trash from the streets, yards and other sources where trash and debris is not stored properly is carried into the storm drains and into the river.  Once the water recedes, debris is left behind along miles of the banks of the river with larger debris such as tires and shopping carts lodged in the bed of the river.

SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott. Courtesy photo.
SARA General Manager Suzanne Scott. Courtesy photo.

“The San Antonio River is a source of pride for this city and a huge public investment has been made by the citizens in the improvements enjoyed today along the Mission Reach,” Scott said. “We all need to do our part to keep the river clean. It’s simple things: don’t litter, pick up trash in the street and in yards, properly recycle or dispose of trash, these simple things can make a big difference.  Keeping our streets and city clean will keep our river and creeks clean.”

Many of the people who commented on my Monday story have offered to work as volunteers in the cleanup operations. SARA is at work on a program that will give people a chance to do just that.

“Unleashing a volunteer army is an offer we’ll take you (Rivard Report) up on,” Schauer said. ” We are working on a new program we are calling ‘River Responders’ that will launch in January 2014. The concept is to ask people to come to our website, sign up, give us their email, and respond to a check list with various volunteer opportunities.”

When SARA needs a volunteer cleanup army, Schauer said, it will alert people in its new network.

“We’ll blast out an email for, say, a river shoreline cleanup on the Mission Reach after a rain event,” Schauer said. “We’ll invite volunteers to show up on a Saturday morning and join staff. Right now we don’t want armies of people trampling down the newly planted grasses and wildflowers. It’s a delicate balance, but we do want to tap the community’s goodwill. People are really enjoying the Mission Reach and want to help take care of it.”

While SARA crews maintain the Mission Reach, morning joggers and walkers who frequent the historic downtown River Walk are accustomed to seeing the Lady Eco at work, a custom-built barge that trawls for trash daily at 7 a.m. and again in the early afternoon. The barge has two hydraulic arms that swing out from its sides, each with six nets that sweep the water one foot down and 35 feet across.

Lady Eco at work downtown on the Monday after Fiesta, April 29, 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Monday morning after Fiesta: Lady Eco hard at work downtown, April 29, 2013. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“Until 2005, our workers had to stand along the edge of the river with hand nets and scoop out floating debris,” said Jim Mery, interim director of the City’s Downtown Operations department. “Now our seven crews can spend more time on landscaping and repairs rather than scooping out litter.”

The San Antonio Parks Foundation, led at that time by the venerable former Mayor Lila Cockrell, purchased and donated the Lady Eco to the City. The barge is effective along the River Walk and even up into the Museum Reach. It would be impractical to put a second barge on the Mission Reach where riffles, shallows and wildscaped river banks cannot be reached with its nets.

“In 2012 we collected 73 tons of debris from the river, and that number would be even higher if we weren’t catching an increasing amount of large debris in the stainless steel collection basins you see downtown now,” Mery said. “You can’t stop all that debris from the Northside floating down after a good rain, but the basins stop a lot before it gets into the river.”

No excuses: Plenty of disposal choices now on the Mission Reach. Photo by Robert Rivard.
No excuses: Plenty of disposal choices now on the Mission Reach. Photo by Robert Rivard.

The City’s Public Works department is responsible for cleanup along the parade routes. People who line the parade routes leave so much litter behind that city employees carrying industrial strength leaf blowers on their backs use the machines to herd that litter in big piles ready to be shoveled into dump trucks.

“We had more than 200 city employees volunteer to work on their day off, walking the parade routes with trash and recycle bags, encouraging people to clean up after themselves,” Mery said. “All they got was a t-shirt and a medal.”

The effort, however noble, was not enough to convince people to stop littering. Like recycling, giving people the option to clean up will not work. Cleaning up will have to become mandatory before people change behavior patterns.

SARA, meanwhile, is hoping to have sufficient unspent funds when the Mission Reach restoration project is completed later this year to purchase floating trash receptacles that would be placed in the water at strategic points along the river.

“We are looking long-term at large trash collectors that we can actually put into the river at key places near the tributaries, if there are enough dollars left over from the project,” Schauer said. “Essentially, they are floating trash bins. They won’t catch everything, but they would allow us to gather large volumes of litter and trash much more easily.”

Lady Bird Park uses signage to educate pet owners. Photo by Robert Rivard
Lady Bird Park uses signage to educate pet owners. Photo by Robert Rivard

The cleanup efforts are impressive, notably for how swiftly they are carried out. Where San Antonio lags behind other cities, however, is in its public education campaign. Austin, for example, has attractive signage around Town Lake showing how litter and pet droppings find their way into the water. There is a strong anti-littering culture, even as people openly litter in San Antonio, seemingly without remorse. There is more signage now, but little or no anti-littering enforcement, even at large public events like Fiesta. To be fair, police are busy with crowd and traffic control and trying hard to deal with revelers, many under the influence, without antagonizing them. Ultimately, it’s a problem that can’t be solved via enforcement.

Fiesta Commission officials, including everyone involved in putting on the parades, could establish new protocols that require non-profits and other groups leasing space on the parade route to leave their areas clean after the parades or pay a stiff penalty. It’s unclear whether there is a willingness to take the problem seriously and enact measures to address it.

My call to Fiesta Commission CEO John Melleky had not been answered by Wednesday evening, although one would imagine Fiesta Commission people are off-duty for a week or so now that another year’s events have come to a close. I will continue to try to engage commission leaders on the matter, and invite them to write their own article for posting here.

“Getting the community engaged in changing behavioral problems is key and the whole point of our Watershed Wise program,” Schauer said. “We’re not asking people to change their entire lifestyle, just to make minor adjustments to how they do things. If everyone does just a little bit it would add up to a big positive impact for the river’s look and health. Right now one person drops a plastic cup or bag and thinks it’s not a big deal. Well, it adds up to a very big deal.”

The Mission Reach, a river restored only three days after being inundated with litter. Photo by Robert Rivard
The Mission Reach, a river restored only three days after being inundated with litter. Photo by Robert Rivard

I walked a stretch of the Mission Reach at sunset on Wednesday and could hardly believe my eyes after what I had witnessed on Sunday. The river shallows, where trash often gathers, and the steep banks were free of litter and restored to their Spring glory, sunflowers peeking up amid fields of colorful wildflowers. It was if San Antonio were a city where littering was a sin of the past.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

Related Stories:

 Fiesta on the San Antonio River’s ‘Garbage Reach’

A Booth with a View: Chicken Dances, Drunks and (too much) Big Red

While Others ‘Fiesta’, San Antonio Cops Keep Things Cool

The Feed: B–Roll on the Mission Reach

SARA Documentary Chronicles Story of the San Antonio River

Basura Bash Volunteers: ‘Clean it Like You Mean it’

The San Antonio River: Respected Around the World

A Cornyation Virgin’s Voyage Through Cringes and Glitter

A Brief Guide to Fiesta for First Timers & The Cascarón App

Fiesta Excess: When Commemoration Turns Sloppy

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.