On an evening in October 1998, a police sergeant pounded on the door of my family’s home. I watched as he issued an urgent request to my father to use our canoe. The policeman explained there had been a disaster in our city, and there were people who needed to be saved. 

I watched as my family’s red Old Town canoe was marched to a convoy of flashing lights and pick-up trucks. Away the heroes went racing toward those trapped in rising floodwaters. Even as a 5-year-old, I understood the dire straits the city was in.

This was one of my earliest memories and a story I revisit often as my first time witnessing the extent of nature’s fury. The flood killed 31 people and caused about $750 million in damages. It also highlighted the flaws in our city’s stormwater system and served as an aggressive reminder that we can’t ignore nature.

But with each square foot of land we develop, with the vegetation we remove, the earth we erode, and the areas we pave with impermeable surfaces, it feels like we are ignoring it. And I wonder whether the city is in danger of forgetting the Great Floods of the late ‘90s. Have we become unmindful of our history both recent and distant?

Two City Council members have demonstrated that they, at least, remember the devastation from the floods — the loss of utilities, the loss of property, and the needless human suffering and deaths inflicted by these events. To help bring these issues back to the forefront, councilwomen Teri Castillo (D5) and Ana Sandoval (D7) have proposed the establishment of an ​​Advisory Committee on Flooding and Stormwater Management to help guide the city’s management of stormwater and flooding as San Antonio’s growth and urban development continue to boom.

The proposal calls for a committee of seven representatives for our seven local watersheds: the Upper San Antonio (3) and Medina River (1), our two major local watersheds, as well as Leon Creek (1), Salado Creek (1), and Cibolo Creek (1). The city’s existing drainage bond committees disband at the end of each bond cycle; this new citizen’s drainage committee would allow residents an ongoing voice in the city’s flood control strategy, including where it spends taxpayer money to reduce flood risk.

The committee’s main charge should be protecting people’s lives and homes from raging floodwaters. However, stormwater runoff also affects the quality of our urban rivers and streams. According to state data, all are too polluted for swimming as a result of bacteria contamination in stormwater runoff. That’s not to mention the mountains of litter that pile up in our local drainages and waterways with each rain. This committee could also be an effective forum to develop a plan on how to reduce the amount of stormwater pollution we see flowing downstream.

Right now, San Antonio is in a drought. However, because of our long history of extreme weather, we know a downpour like the 1998 flood is only a matter of time. Let’s not wait until the next flood to take action.

As of today, city council members Clayton Perry (D10), John Courage (D9), and Melissa Cabello Havrda (D6) have added their signatures in support of the ​​Advisory Committee on Flooding and Stormwater Management. We need all our city council members to sign on because, as Sandoval pointed out, “the watersheds don’t respect political boundaries.” 

Charles Blank

Charles Blank is the executive director of River Aid San Antonio,