Robert Rivard

The close of Fiesta for me belongs to the Southside and the San Antonio Charro Ranch on Padre Drive.  The Charreada is an afternoon of traditional Mexican music and rodeo as charros and adelitas on horseback ride into the arena, mariachi rousing the Sunday crowd with the sound of brass, gritos and whistles.

Plan A was to write about the charreada to bring Fiesta 2013 to a close. What I saw Sunday changed my mind.

This year, sadly, the lasting image of Fiesta’s final day for me will be the storm-washed litter that destroyed any sense of civic pride that I or anyone else in this city should feel today for the reborn Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. Go see for yourself. Is this what we claim is worthy of World Heritage site status?

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

Some will say the visual destruction of the river is no big deal, a temporary mess that “they,” meaning the City of San Antonio and the San Antonio River Authority and Bexar County can somehow quickly and quietly clean up.  It’s the “somebody else will take care of it” mentality that makes it so easy. Aren’t there volunteers who do this kind of work?

Some will say I’m making too big of a deal out of a one-time thing: “Our river” wouldn’t look so bad if there hadn’t been a big storm Saturday night, a storm that brought enough rain and lightning to force the first-ever cancellation of the Fiesta Flambeau.

The storm and the ensuing runoff bring into focus what officials at the San River Authority have been telling us for years in their Watershed Wise outreadch program. What we put on the ground we are putting in the river. Revelers have been littering for days along parade routes, at festivals, in parking lots and on neighborhood streets.

If Fiesta defines in some larger way San Antonio and its traditions, it also says we are a city with public habits more often found in the developing world. People litter because, well, people have always littered in San Antonio. Our expectations are low. So people keep littering, and that begets other people who litter.

What can officials do about it?

The view from my bike. Photo by Robert Rivard
The view from my bike. Photo by Robert Rivard

For starters, clean up. The Mission Reach was marred by visible litter along its banks and in its waters even before Fiesta. A more systematic approach to capturing downstream litter and policing the banks and waters must be devised. Are sturdy nets placed at low-water points a possibility?

City employees can’t possibly keep up by themselves unless people want to pay higher taxes. I see three categories of people who can help on litter patrol: paid summer interns, adult and juvenile offenders serving sentences in county facilities, and individuals caught littering ordered by the court to perform community service.

Second, start enforcing anti-litter ordinances and laws. If people have to pay fines or perform community service they will respond, just as a lack of enforcement tells people there is no punitive price to pay for littering.

Increase receptacles for garbage and recycles materials. The City already is doing a good job here, but more can be done.

Embark on a public education campaign that appeals to people’s civic pride in building a better, cleaner city. That campaign should include the school districts and public signage appealing to people’s best instincts. Children taught not to litter at an early age can be very effective in making less thoughtful parents and siblings behave more responsibly.

Why did we spend hundreds of millions of dollars improving the San Antonio River and its banks to create one of the nation’s unique linear parks if we are going to treat the river like a garbage dump as we have this Fiesta?

It’s a question for a whole city.

A litter-strewn bridge on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. Photo by Robert Rivard.
A litter-strewn bridge on the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.