Mariachi played and the crowd cheered as local leaders and San Antonio River stewards rode into the Pearl Amphitheater Monday on a brand new river barge. San Antonio River Authority Board Secretary Hector Morales stood at the bow of the barge to triumphantly display the prestigious Thiess International Riverprize Award.

Every year, the International RiverFoundation awards the prestigious prize in recognition of top-notch river basin management. River Authority representatives accepted the award on San Antonio’s behalf during a ceremony in Brisbane, Australia, on Sept. 19.

Monday’s celebration brought together City, County, and River Authority leaders to recognize the decades-long collaborations that made the downtown, Museum, and Mission reaches of the river possible. Fifteen miles of linear parks and pathways along the river connect 2,000 acres of parkland in the city.

The award officially acknowledges the San Antonio River as a “valued natural resource to the world,” River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott told the crowd of about 50, noting that it is now in the company of other high-caliber, award-winning rivers and basins including the Lake Eyre Basin, and the Niagara, Rhine, Mara, Willamette, Thames, and Danube rivers, among others.

“The award recognizes inspiring initiatives that demonstrate the best in watershed restoration, stewardship, innovation, and management,” Scott said. “We view the Riverprize as well-earned international recognition of the long standing support, investment, and protection this community and its leaders have given the San Antonio River.”

Throughout the twists and turns of the river’s history, Scott said, there were plenty of opportunities for City and County leaders to make decisions that would have led it in the opposite direction of the Thiess award.

More than $530 million in public investments dedicated to flood control, environmental rehabilitation, art, and recreational infrastructure, which includes the San Antonio River Improvements Project, have led to more than $1 billion in private investment along the river’s banks, Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said. About 50 new businesses have opened near the river between 2013 and 2016.

When the plan to reinvigorate the river was created in the 1990s, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said he was worried it would just sit on a shelf. Then-Mayor Phil Hardberger dusted off those plans despite the incredible, albeit over-estimated, price tag.

“How much did the Taj Mahal cost?” Wolff recalled the mayor asking.

“I don’t know,” he replied.

“Who cares?” Hardberger quipped at the time.

“While he paddled north, I paddled south,” Wolff said, referencing the City’s focus on the Museum reach where the retail, restaurant, and housing aspects of the Pearl now flourish.

Projects to enhance the Museum and Mission reaches have “paid enormous dividends” including the World Heritage designation of the Spanish-colonial Missions, Wolff said, and there’s more to come with the May 5 opening of the first phase of San Pedro Creek during the City’s Tricentennial celebrations next year.

Confluence Park, the River Foundation’s “outdoor classroom” on the Mission Reach will open in January 2018, Board Chair Michael Lackey said, bringing a whole new level of engagement and education to the river’s banks.

Out of 31 submissions for the award this year, San Antonio was a finalist along with the Tweed River in Great Britain; the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers in Alaska; and the once-dead Pasig River in the Philippines.

Scott opened Monday’s ceremonies with an explanation of the river’s project and partnerships, but made a point to recognize the indigenous and Spanish influences on the river’s history.

“Sometimes we forget that there indigenous people here,” said Linda Ximenes, a member of the Tap Pilam Coahuiltecan Nation, Xarame clan. Ximenes blessed the river and its advocates, honoring the four directions and “all that is.”

The natives were “smart enough to stay close to the water,” she said, as were the Spaniards and others that followed.

She emphasized a need to “love [the river] all the way to the coast.”

Father David Garcia, director of the Old Spanish Missions, also delivered a prayer that echoed Ximenes’ words of inclusivity.

“The river reminds us to care for all of creation,” Garcia said. “This river does not discriminate … this river has brought us together.”

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org