About 4,500 years ago, native Texans mapped their waterways on a cave wall in the Pecos River Valley. A rock painting called the White Shaman Mural shows four dots along a sinuous red line. Gary Perez, a descendent of the Hokan-speaking peoples of South Texas, said that these dots align perfectly with Barton Springs in Austin, Comal Springs in New Braunfels, San Marcos Springs, and the Blue Hole in San Antonio.
A few millennia later, the Great Springs Project has proposed to connect the same four springs via 100 miles of hike-and-bike trails. Led by conservation advocate Deborah Morin, the project will safeguard 50,000 acres of land over the Edwards Aquifer recharge zone, a corridor that feeds and purifies the water supply of over two million people. In December, the National Park Service (NPS) pledged its support for the Great Springs Project.
But massive park projects can have a dark side.
San Antonio, the home of the River Walk, has seen it many times. I began to learn this in 2019, when I interviewed 23 San Antonians from river-adjacent neighborhoods as part of my senior thesis project. I share these stories with the hope that future river parks can achieve conservation without displacing people or erasing their histories.
In 1993, the City of San Antonio and the River Authority launched the San Antonio River Improvements Project (SARIP) to extend the River Walk north and south of downtown. The southernmost eight miles, which connect four Spanish colonial missions, became the Mission Reach. Like the Great Springs Project, the Mission Reach’s purpose was part recreation, part conservation. Planners combined trail systems and ecological restoration measures to rehabilitate a river damaged by mid-century flood control projects.
Starting in 1954, the City of San Antonio and the Army Corps of Engineers destroyed pecan groves, widened the river, and poured miles of concrete channels to control flooding south of downtown. While effective, these flood control measures left sections of the once-wild river bare and desolate, more like a ditch than a natural stream. Through SARIP, River Authority staff have patiently re-seeded the banks with native plants, welcoming back diverse fish, amphibians, and waterbirds. People come from all over the city and state to hike, bike, and picnic along the Mission Reach.
While visitors flood in, South Side residents have begun to trickle out.
The first wave of park-related displacement happened in the early 1980s, when Congress passed a law authorizing NPS to acquire any private lands deemed “necessary or desirable” for the creation of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. In total, NPS appropriated 209 acres from 80 private properties – and not everyone wanted to sell.
Maria and her husband fought to keep their home near Mission San Juan. They had four children and planned to raise them by the river. After an expensive legal battle, the court gave 16 acres of Maria’s property to NPS and allowed the family to live on the remaining three acres – temporarily. Maria’s husband has since passed away. When she dies, the property will default to NPS. Although her children want to keep their family home, the ruling is inflexible. They live on borrowed land.
The second wave of displacement began in the last decade and continues to rise. After the River Authority completed the Mission Reach in 2015, property values surged. One resident near Mission San José told me that his property taxes rose by 30% in 2016. Many of his neighbors moved because they could no longer afford the cost of living. Additionally, new development has forced out low-income households. In 2014, the city rezoned the Mission Trails RV Community to permit luxury apartment buildings. Residents formed Vecinos de Mission Trails to protest, but the city proceeded with the rezoning, displacing 300 people. Priced out, three in five displaced households had to leave the South Side.
In contrast, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that nearly one thousand new housing units have appeared near the Mission Reach since 2010. Four thousand new residents have moved into the area, driving property values up by nearly 50% since 2000. The municipal government and the River Authority designed SARIP to generate a “more desirable living and working environment” on the South Side. And it succeeded, to an extent.
“It’s beautiful,” said Olga Martinez, a South Side resident who grew up near Mission Espada. “Everybody wants to come here. They changed it up and cleaned it up for the tourists. But not for us.”
As a little girl, Martinez learned to fish and swim in the San Antonio River. She and her sister would sit side-by-side on the old Espada Dam, letting the water flow around them. Today, no one touches the water. Signs posted along the River Walk talk about the river’s pre-Colombian past, hydrology, and wildlife, but none of this information can tell people how it felt to pasture their cows by the Espada Aqueduct, or plunge into a cool, dark swimming hole near the forgotten San Juan Dam.
The Great Springs Project promises to create a green corridor by “unifying existing local efforts.” Similarly, the River Authority hosted meetings to solicit local input for SARIP. Archived meeting notes show that residents were mostly supportive, but had one persistent fear: Would the developments make their lives better, or simply attract tourists and investors? As the Great Springs Project seeks National Trail designation, I hope leadership considers two key questions:
- Who lives here now, and how can we improve their quality of life?
- Who lived here before, and how can we tell their stories?
Environmental conservation should not exist apart from historic preservation. Preservation is not just about protecting old buildings; it is about treasuring the stories that define us. This means we must safeguard not only historic landscapes, but also the people who occupy them. I want to see the Great Springs project succeed. I value parks, clean water, and physical exercise. But I also value the memories of people who know and love the land. They teach us that green space is more than a useful technique for environmental and personal health. The water in the Edwards Aquifer connects us to our past. Over four thousand years ago, indigenous Texans told stories about the Great Springs. Four thousand years later, the stories continue, if we choose to listen.