The new Olmos Basin Park trail. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.
The new Olmos Basin Park trail. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

The design phase of Olmos Creek’s federally funded restoration is running on schedule, said local officials during a workshop at the Christopher Columbus Italian Society on Saturday, April 2.

Community members and local stakeholders were invited to the workshop to learn more about the basics of the Urban Waters Olmos Creek Project, which could lead to an improved ecosystem and a better public understanding of how it works. The restoration of a three-mile stretch of Olmos Creek, which includes improving the surface water flow along the upper creek banks, will be the next big step for the overall Olmos Basin.

“The design phase is ongoing and we’ve secured rights of entry to four of the five properties that we’re concerned with,” said Brian Mast, San Antonio River Authority‘s intergovernmental relations specialist.

Officials expect 60% of the design will be completed later this spring, and the rest of it will be completed later this summer with the construction process to follow in phases.

Jacobs Engineering, a subcontracting company with locations throughout the world, is helping with the design. Because local authorities are working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the project costs less than $10 million, it must be completed within three years.

Workshop attendees also learned about five other local Urban Waters projects that are ongoing or currently in the works, including:

Eastside Promise Neighborhood/Wheatley Choice/Promise Zone and Salado Creek Greenway; San Pedro Creek restorationWestside Creeks ecosystem restorationSan Antonio Missions World Heritage and cultural connections; and Brackish groundwater desalination.

The River Authority’s partners in the Urban Waters projects include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), several state and local agencies, municipalities and grassroots groups for input and logistical support. The whole Urban Waters program will reconnect urban communities in growing or economically distressed areas with their local waterways by enhancing coordination among relevant agencies and collaborating with community-led revitalization efforts.

San Antonio is among the 19 cities participating in the Urban Waters partnership. The San Antonio/Bexar County Urban Waters projects will help protect, restore and revitalize inner-city local water resources.

About 96 acres– 73 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, six acres of aquatic habitat and 17 acres of riparian grassland– lie along the route of planned restoration in Olmos Creek.

The restoration work there will not resemble the similar, larger scale project that took place along the Mission Reach portion of the Riverwalk, Mast said. An average 50 feet of land along each creek bank will be restored for the length of the target route.

“It won’t be like Mission Reach where a lot of dirt is removed,” Mast said. “It’s more individualized treatment.”

The Urban Waters project, funded by a mix of local and federal funds, will restore 3 miles of Olmos Creek from San Pedro Avenue to Olmos Dam. Courtesy illustration
The Urban Waters project, funded by a mix of local and federal funds, will restore 3 miles of Olmos Creek from San Pedro Avenue to Olmos Dam. Courtesy illustration

According to EPA documents, the Olmos Creek restoration “responds to the San Antonio North Central Community Plan goal for restoring the natural beauty and habitat to the Olmos Basin Park, and would complement community investments in park rehabilitation.”

It is key to remove non-native, invasive plant and tree species, such as Cat’s Claw and Johnson Grass, upgrade water flow and temperature, and enhance the ecosystem by planting native species along the creekway. The new native trees, shrubs and grass would also prevent erosion.

This would be a strategic way to create a better habitat for stormwaters as they enter the creek, Mast said, adding that this restoration of the Olmos Creek stretch will boost habitat diversity where resident and migratory birds are concerned.

These riverbank corridors connect with other habitats, providing a food source and resting area for migratory birds. According to the Corps of Engineers, these types of habitats are decreasing in number and size, and must be preserved to increase the birds’ odds of survival.

The federal government has aimed to restore Olmos Creek for years, and the Corps of Engineers developed a creek plan in the early 2000s, but federal funds did not become available until 2009.

Despite the federal funds, the City of San Antonio did not come up with its 35% matching portion until five years later. According to an agreement with the Corps of Engineers, the cost of the restoration project is not to exceed $2.45 million.

All but two to three acres of the route belong to three large organizational property owners: the cities of Alamo Heights and San Antonio, and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Lynda McCombs and the Flannery family also privately own portions of property on the route.

The two cities, the church and the Flannery family all have given rights of entry for surveying so that engineers can examine that acreage more closely.

Mast and Alamo Heights Mayor Louis Cooper said the River Authority and the City of Alamo Heights are communicating with McCombs, providing her with more information about the project.

“It’s a matter of (McCombs) being comfortable with what’s being proposed, understanding the bigger picture. She certainly enjoys being able to access that part of her property,” Mast said. “She likes the comfort it provides and wants to protect it. It’s really about educating us as agencies working on the project, and making her comfortable with what we’re proposing.”

Five property owners are affected by the planned restoration of Olmos Creek: The cities of Alamo Heights and San Antonio, St. Luke's Episcopal Church, and Lynda McCombs and William and Rebecca Flannery. Courtesy illustration
Five property owners are affected by the planned restoration of Olmos Creek: The cities of Alamo Heights and San Antonio, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, and Lynda McCombs and William and Rebecca Flannery. Courtesy illustration

According to Mast, there has been no delay in the overall project. If McCombs gives no access to her land for any reason, the project will go forward without her participation. Her property, he added, would not get the same treatment as the rest of the route.

The Alamo Heights mayor was not at Saturday’s workshop, but spoke with the Rivard Report prior. His city is behind any effort to improve the Olmos Basin area ecologically through cleanup and flooding mitigation, he said.

“It is a miniscule part of the project,” Cooper said of McCombs’ property. “We’re still in the survey process to see where the easements would fall. It’s a great project and we’re hopeful all landowners on the route will participate. What this will do is let water flow through more easily and lessen flooding in parts of the area.”

The local Urban Waters project portfolio lists other activities that, while not directly linked to the Olmos Creek restoration, would enhance the Olmos Basin.

One such activity includes cleaning up runoff from the San Antonio Zoo. In the early summer of 2014, the City of San Antonio supported the installation of a $3 million ultra-violet disinfection facility for stormwater.

The facility, based at the zoo, is one of several methods that the River Authority is using toward reducing E. coli bacteria in the upper part of the river.

“During ambient times, we can treat 99.8% of the bacteria that flows from the zoo. That’s a huge step,” Mast told the Rivard Report.

Another activity is related to a pilot project for preventing refuse from entering the creek. That is still in the planning stages. Once green-lighted, this trash-capture system will be separate from the creek restoration and have its own funding mechanism.

“We are exploring different methodologies on capturing that trash,” said Mast, adding that discussions among local authorities and the Texas Department of Transportation about flooding issues in the U.S. 281/Olmos Basin region are ongoing.

The River Authority and its partners have also been communicating with organizations such as the Friends of Hondondo Creek Trails, a nonprofit group of volunteers that helps to maintain mostly unspoiled trails extending from part of Olmos Creek.

Links from the Hondondo Creek trail system stretch from near the Alamo Heights city pool toward Jones Maltsberger/Devine Road.

Group representative Sally Ann Smith has previously said that there are 130 species of birds in the area, which remains mostly untouched by humans. In recent years, Friends of Hondondo Creek Trails have improved accessibility with trails made of StaLok, a natural aggregate.

“We want to make sure that during construction for our project, we aren’t treading over their improvements,” Mast said.

Smith attended Saturday’s workshop, where she found only positives with the Olmos Creek project plan and communications with SARA.

“Working with them is really a treat for our whole board,” Smith said.  While cleanup in Hondondo Creek is not part of the restoration project, Smith and her group believe the project will help the overall habitat and call attention to the area’s natural charm and fragility.

“I think it’s going to all fit in quite nicely,” she said.

The River Authority and its partners hope to hold a public meeting in the next two to three months and show a firm 30% design, gain feedback from locals, and help to facilitate community expectations for the restoration, Mast said.

“In the bigger picture for what Urban Waters is, there’s a lot of interest from everyone who is here in all the projects in that portfolio,” he said. “It’s a lot of people connecting dots.”

It is that kind of cross-pollination of public feedback and information, Mast added, that stakeholders and supervisory agencies hope to increase for the Olmos Creek project.

*Top image: The new Olmos Basin Park trail. Photo by Edmond Ortiz.

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Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.