Lincoln St. George is praying for a freeze. As San Antonio’s downtown operations manager, St. George, 54, oversees maintenance and landscaping of the San Antonio River. A freeze would really help with one big item looming on his staff’s to-do list: removal of dense stands of Elephant Ears, Colocasia esculenta, an invasive aquatic plant that has colonized the banks of the South Channel, the 1.5-mile stretch of the river that winds through the historic King William neighborhood from West Nueva Street to South Alamo Street.
One good freeze, and those Elephant Ears would be whacked back good, making their removal a slightly easier task. Unfortunately for St. George and anyone else wishing for a real cold front, March is less than one week away and the prospect of a freeze diminishes by the day.
St. George, a certified nurseryman, told residents in late 2015 that the overzealous Elephant Ears, introduced to the U.S. from Asia in the 1800s, would be tackled when the river was drained in January 2016. The distinctive tropical plant with large, velvety green “elephant” ears is not welcome in the San Antonio River or any other Texas waterway.
The aggressive interloper ousts native vegetation, disrupts the local ecosystem and reduces biodiversity. A member of the taro family, Elephant Ears was initially introduced as a substitute food crop for potatoes. Its large distinctive leaves made it popular as an ornamental plant in gardens and landscapes. When it escapes to wet, moist conditions, it becomes a trouble-maker, forming dense homogenous colonies.
Its corms and roots occupy hundreds of square feet in three aquatic “pocket planters” along the South Channel between the Arsenal Street Bridge and the Blue Star Complex. It has also taken up residence downstream in the recently restored Eagleland Reach and the $271.4 million Mission Reach Improvement Project. Like the worst kind of gentrifier, Elephant Ears offers little to its surrounding community – it sucks up resources, ousts longterm residents, and makes it more expensive to live in the aquatic neighborhood. Its only contribution is to offer a bit of shade and cover for water moccasins and an advantageous perch for Snowy Egrets.
“The egrets love it because they can get the crawdads faster,” said St. George.
As January rolled around and the River Walk was drained for cleaning, those of us who live along the South Channel watched as the water level lowered slightly. Draining the South Channel would be a crucial first step in successful removal of the Elephant Ears. The plant’s soaked, muddy biomass weighs thousands of pounds. St. George planned to bring in small tractors to combine mechanical removal with herbicide treatments. Attacking Elephant Ears stands from the river bank would be too arduous, he said.
The plant is famously tenacious and has vexed staff at Lady Bird Lake in Austin and along the San Marcos River. San Antonio River Authority staff have “actively targeted” Elephant Ears for removal, and have coordinated with the City on the effort. It’s tough duty.
The Nature Conservancy website cautions “any remaining fragments will readily germinate to create new growth … making the problem worse.” Invasive species experts recommend a combination of aquatic-safe herbicide and mechanical removal. St. George was planning to do just that during the river draining in January.
But the 2016 draining of the South Channel never happened. St. George said his plan was sidetracked because cleaning up the River Walk left the City with too little water to refill it.
“I got a call from an engineer that we didn’t have enough water to refill the River Walk,” St. George said when asked why the South Channel didn’t get its turn. The River Walk water had to be conserved in the South Channel, then pumped back up to the River Loop to keep the water level consistent.
St. George now intends to apply repeated doses of herbicide to rid the South Channel of Elephant Ears. That process should begin in late March or early April.
The saga of the South Channel’s Elephant Ears appears to be the latest turn in a long cycle of oversight combined with a lack of imagination and resources. The South Channel doesn’t generate tourist taxes and revenues, and it didn’t benefit from the millions of dollars dedicated to riparian restoration along the Mission Reach. It’s the city’s orphaned stretch of river – River Walk in name only and not part of the Mission Reach.
Maintenance has long been an issue. Volunteer trees – that is, trees that sprout and grow of their own volition – crop up at multiple turns on the trail. The South Channel’s sprinkler system has been turned off for years because of leaks on both banks. Patches of grass and turf along the walkways and under tree canopy remain bare and water-starved. The pulley/crane system used to deploy maintenance barges at the Nueva Street marina below the dam has been inoperable for years, according to staff. St. George said small “john boats” are deployed for trash removal as needed – most recently in July 2015.
Two City maintenance workers motoring out on a maintenance barge this week to power wash the River Walk said they carry out the chore “every day.” How often do they attend to the South Channel? “Never,” they said.
A large dead ash tree, washed downstream into the South Channel, has been an eyesore since the 2015 spring floods. Its exposed rootball now houses an embedded liquor bottle, crushed beer cans, and other trash, and now it’s sprouting Elephant Ears corms.
Litter and waste, including the occasional dead varmint, float on the surface water and pollute the banks. Kayakers and stand-up paddlers are more likely to notice these eyesores from the water than walkers, cyclists and joggers, whose numbers are growing as projects in or near the river, like the 349-unit Agave apartments, become fully occupied.
The trails that wind along the banks of the South Channel make for a lovely walk or paddle. Stately homes, tall trees, and the South Channel’s quiet vibe serve as a welcome transition from the commercial River Walk down to the Blue Star. The litter and unkempt environs would never be tolerated along the tourist-rich River Walk. Those of us who live, work, walk, run and paddle along the South Channel wonder why the attention applied to the Museum and Mission Reach has somehow skipped the residential South Channel.
Even St. George admits to a landscaping rut.
“I’ve told my guys to think differently” about the South Channel, he said.
Back in the 1980s, when a focus on native plants was less common, landscape architect James E. Keeter recommended a mixed plant palette for the South Channel. A plant list from a 1983 set of blueprints showed the various terrestrial areas to be landscaped and included desirable natives like cardinal flower, various sages, pickerel weed and fragrant water lily. It also listed 2,277 plugs of English Ivy, 4,500 sets of Asiatic Jasmine and 3,967 square yards of St. Augustine grass. Those plants continue to dominate the South Channel landscape. The St. Augustine seems especially inappropriate with no functioning sprinkler system and a requirement of 40-50 inches of water per year to look good.
Longtime King William resident Maria Pfeiffer has been advocating for the South Channel for years. “I call Lincoln all the time,” she said.
Pfeiffer has lived much of her 65 years on its banks.
“Our backyard sloped down to the river and there was about the same amount of water there is now,” recalled Pfeiffer, who lives with her husband Fred Pfeiffer on Washington Street in a home built in 1880 and occupied by her extended family since 1905.
“When I was growing up, it was all overgrown. My friends would come down from the Northside and we would go down there and wander around. They thought it was so exotic.”
The Pfeiffers walk the river almost every day. Fred Pfeiffer served as the general manager of the San Antonio River Authority from 1968-1999. When the South Channel was born in its current iteration, public meetings and discourse were vigorous and appropriate. Not much has happened since then. Budget cuts and a resource squeeze have taken a toll.
“Back when the City used to actually maintain it, it was beautiful,” Maria recalled. “There were water lilies and black marsh marigolds. There were birds and bees and butterflies.”
Mike Casey, often dubbed the “unofficial Mayor of King William,” was president of the King William Association when the South Channel was reconfigured in the 1980s. He expressed similar disappointment with the lack of attention paid the South Channel today.
“I’m always disappointed when I hear tourists say, ‘Oh, what a lovely canal!’” said Casey. “I always tell them, ‘It’s not a canal, it’s a river.’”
Casey, who sometimes paddles his canoe through the Channel and participates religiously in the annual King William Fourth of July Regatta paddling event, would love to see the concrete walls covered with more plants as they are on the Museum Reach. There, blooming purple and white Lantana cascade over the harsh concrete walls and serve as butterfly attractors. The South Channel’s continuous yards of exposed concrete cut a severe and unbecoming profile, Casey said, adding that two aquatic planters just north of the César Chávez Bridge have remained empty and unplanted since their installation in the ’80s.
St. George and his team at the City have agreed to devote some time and attention to the South Channel and have been working on a plan. A lack of resources limits the possibilities, some staff have said.
Currently, the City’s annual maintenance budget for the River Walk Loop and the South Channel is $2.4 million. St. George said he does not break out South Channel maintenance numbers from the entire budget. The San Antonio River Authority’s budget for maintaining the Museum Reach, Eagleland Extension and Mission Reach is about $4 million – $2.5 million for the Mission and Eagleland Reaches and $1.4 million for the Museum Reach. Downtown Operations has oversight of the South Channel, but the department has bounced from reporting to the Parks and Recreation Department to what is now titled the Center City Development and Operations Department.
Volunteers like myself have offered to pitch in by helping to source appropriate native plants and share ideas. We are willing to help, but the increase in community use of the South Channel warrants a public discussion: How can we reimagine the South Channel? What do we want from it?
My preference would be a pollinator path of native and well adapted plants connecting the River Walk and Mission Reach – something similar to the Museum Reach plantings, another urban San Antonio River “channel.” Pocket prairies could be planted along the trail and native Swamp milkweeds (Asclepias incarnata, a Monarch butterfly host plant that loves “wet feet” and grows naturally along streams in the Hill Country) could grace the aquatic planters occupied by Elephant Ears. Riverbanks and trailsides could be recast as lovely, lively landscapes to be enjoyed from land or water.
The native plant demonstration garden installed years ago by the Master Naturalists on the west bank of the South Channel at Aubrey and Old Guilbeau Street, could be expanded to set an example for the community that native and well adapted plants can be just as beautiful and require less work and water than St. Augustine lawns. Edible landscapes could be cultivated for people and pollinators alike.
Mayor Ivy Taylor signed the National Wildlife Federation’s Mayor’s Monarch Pledge in December, making San Antonio the first, and to date, only Monarch Champion City in the country. She agreed to execute all 24 action items on the NWF’s action items list. Number eight on the list: create a pollinator habitat in a “highly prominent” location. Could a reimagination of the South Channel allow Mayor Taylor check that item off the list?
Leave a comment and let us know what you imagine for the South Channel. Cross your fingers for a freeze that will hasten the demise of invasive Elephant Ears.
*Top image: Vines creep down a concrete wall on the South Channel of the San Antonio River. Photo by Scott Ball.