It’s fitting that the city’s eighth annual Water Forum will focus on the life, history, and future health of the San Antonio River, and its no surprise that organizers expect more than 550 to attend the Monday luncheon program at the Witte Museum’s Mays Family Center.

People in San Antonio are more educated about water conservation and management than anywhere else I have lived, and as the city’s Tricentennial approaches in May, people are understandably proud of the $384 million San Antonio River Improvements Project.

The restoration and revitalization of the river was 15 years in the making, beginning in 1998 with a 22-person  San Antonio River Oversight Committee, and reaching fruition in 2013 with the opening of the Mission Reach. Former Mayor Lila Cockrell and Irby Hightower, founding principal at Alamo Architects, served as co-chairs, a marathon-long example of civic leadership.

Today the river’s four very different segments include the four miles of the Museum Reach, with its still-to-be-completed Park Reach; the downtown River Walk and South Channel; the mile-long Eagleland Reach; and the eight miles of wildscape Mission Reach.

This represents the city’s most comprehensive and transformative investment in city building in modern history. It was an investment in land and water quality, in urban nature, rather than bricks and mortar, or street and sidewalks. That investment lies at the heart of the 2015 UNESCO World Heritage designation of the Alamo and the four Spanish colonial missions. Last month the San Antonio River was awarded the coveted 2017 Thiess International Riverprize, yet another global recognition.

The river defines our city, and for thousands of years before, our prehistory. Today it’s a reminder that a healthier river can be our pathway to becoming a healthier city if we stay the course.

Kayakers paddle down the San Antonio River. Photo by Scott Ball.
Kayakers paddle down the San Antonio River. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

That brings me to the subject of our Monday panel discussion. It will be my privilege for the eighth consecutive year to moderate a conversation with local leaders and a visiting expert, all dedicated to public service and river and watershed management. Panelists include Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority (SARA); Mayor Ron Nirenberg; state Rep. Lyle Larson, arguably the Texas House’s most knowledgable legislator on statewide water issues; and Nicole Silks, president of the Boulder, Co.-based River Network.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and SARA Chairman Mike Lackey will open the program, and Scott, last year’s winner of the Water for Life Award, will announce this year’s winner.

While the panel will note the river’s rebirth as a great urban linear park, most of the program will focus on water quality challenges and problems we face in San Antonio.

For all its improvements, the San Antonio River remains an impaired waterway. Outdated development codes continue to lead to excessive impervious cover in this sprawling city and inadequate stormwater mitigation. Click here to access SARA’s water quality data and monitoring stations.

Impervious cover encompasses more than just roadways, parking lots and sidewalks. According to the City’s Transportation and Capital Improvements definition, it also includes pools, patios, sheds, driveways, and private sidewalks. Cover the earth so water can no longer recharge into the soil and you have impervious cover.

You see the problem – and the consequences. Too much impervious cover means worse flooding episodes after rain storms, while inadequate filtration occurs before contaminated water enters the river, bringing with it all the chemicals, waste, and litter of the city.

The City has invested millions of dollars in an ultraviolet water treatment system at the San Antonio Zoo, which used to discharge millions of gallons of untreated water and animal waste into the river. Fecal bacterium counts remain high in the river below the zoo, but how much of it comes from there or from roosting flocks of birds and nesting ducks in Brackenridge Park is not clear.

The ability to absorb a superstorm like Hurricane Harvey also is an issue, as demonstrated by the preliminary release last week of a SARA-generated model. A catastrophic weather episode in San  Antonio would result in a 4-foot wall of water overflowing the Olmos Dam. How serious the flooding would be in neighborhoods along the creeks  and river system and in the urban core are still being modeled and will be released in the coming months.

How ready are we as a city to deal with such an emergency? The panel will certainly address that.

Jones Maltsberger Road is flooded at East Basse Road after heavy weekend rains on Oct. 24, 2015. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Jones Maltsberger Road is flooded at East Basse Road in October 2015. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

The mayor and City Council face hard decisions in the coming months and year as elected officials work to manage San Antonio’s continuing growth, including one million more people moving here over the next 25 years. Updated codes and regulations leading to more sustainable development and infill development are essential to the future health of the river and the urban environment, and our collective public health.

A healthier river, city, and populace would seem to be something we can all agree we want, but getting there will require people to change. It will require elected leaders to make long-term decisions that might result in lower short-term profit for some and higher fees for others.

If the river is to serve as a model for the future, it will require all of us to think and act in terms of decades rather than election cycles. It’s up to citizens to get active, to speak up, to become river guardians, to vote, and to support leaders who lead.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.