Dozens of volunteers recruited by the anti-litter group River Aid San Antonio will gather this Sunday morning at J Street Park on the city’s East Side to undertake an Earth Day cleanup of Salado Creek, a popular public dumping site.

Amazon, Salesforce and Brackenridge High School are among the local employers and other entities sending teams of volunteers to join in the effort. If past efforts are an accurate measure, the final result will be measured not in pounds, but in tons.

River Aid’s volunteer-driven efforts are noble ones, occurring now multiple times each month at various points on the Howard W. Peak Greenway Trails System network and adjacent green spaces. The group hustles donations from H-E-B and other sponsors and provides volunteers with water, snacks, sunscreen, mosquito spray and heavy-duty garbage bags.

Bring your own work gloves and hat.

“We will finish the month of April, which is Earth Day month, having undertaken a total of eight different organized cleanups,” said Charles Blank, River Aid’s executive director. “We expect a very big group of volunteers for the Salado Creek cleanup.”

Yet the effort by Blank and his fellow organizers and the army of volunteers they attract is a drop-in-the-bucket solution to the city’s culture of litter and local government’s failure to address that problem.

This week, officials in the city’s Office of Innovation will host the Texas Smart Cities Summit at Port San Antonio’s newly opened Tech Port Center and Arena on Thursday and Friday.

“Our vision for Tech Port Center and Arena is to create an innovation destination like no other: a place that connects people and ideas from throughout our community, across the nation and around the world,” said Jim Perschbach, Port San Antonio president and CEO. “The Smart Cities Summit, as one of the first public events held here, perfectly captures the essence of our vision to accelerate innovation by bringing people together who are passionate about making the world a better and more productive place through the joint development and adoption of new technologies.”

The in-person gathering is expected to attract digital experts from across Texas and beyond to address the challenges and opportunities that present themselves post-pandemic.

“San Antonio’s culture and diversity fuel our vision for innovation and the future of the City,” said Brian Dillard, chief innovation officer at the City of San Antonio. “With residents at the center of our work we are excited to activate space through the Smart Cities Summit to collaborate with cross sector leaders and explore emerging technology.”

Trash and litter fills Alamo Plaza two days after Fiesta ended this year.
Trash and litter fill Alamo Plaza two days after Fiesta ended this year. Credit: Bob Rivard / San Antonio Report

But how can San Antonio brand itself as a 21st century “smart city” when it appears unable to address its chronic litter problem, including the blind eye it turns each Fiesta to the ridiculous amounts of litter left behind by parade-goers and attendees of various festivals?

To be clear, the litter problem is not in Dillard’s portfolio.

In fact, the litter problem isn’t owned by anyone at city hall. That’s the problem. The city handles the massive Fiesta cleanups and the nightly downtown street and River Walk cleanings, while the San Antonio River Authority organizes River Warriors and the annual Basura Bash. Its workers do their best to keep the river and banks south of downtown clean.

No one is systematically enforcing anti-litter laws.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council members, along with City Manager Erik Walsh and his senior staff, should deliver a “clean up your act” ultimatum to the Fiesta Commission, the San Antonio Conservation Society, the King William Association and other participating organizations.

No more free litter cleanups after Fiesta events and other public gatherings on the calendar. Once the city starts billing the organizations for cleanup costs now borne by taxpayers, leaders of those groups will quickly find ways to address the litter problem.

Until then, we remain a city with a litter problem quite easy to see, whether you are a resident or a Smart Cities visitor. San Antonio can’t be pursuing its vision to become a city competing for talented young professionals if it can’t figure out how to keep public spaces clean and respected.

Until top city leaders realize the problem cannot be addressed without a greater focus and enforcement, those of us who believe in citizen action will gather on weekend mornings to pick up trash left on the ground and in our river and creeks. To ignore the problem, for many of us, is not an option.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.