The San Antonio River and the $384 million improvement project that gave the city a 15-mile linear park and the celebrated Museum and Mission Reaches has been selected as the winner of the 2017 Thiess International Riverprize, it was announced Tuesday in Brisbane, Australia.

The 15-year ecological and economic restoration of the San Antonio River was chosen over several other finalists, including the Tweed River in Great Britain; the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers in Alaska; and the once-dead Pasig River in the Philippines.

The annual prize is considered the most coveted international recognition of river and watershed restoration, stewardship, and management. Hundreds of representatives of river and watershed systems from around the globe were on hand for the announcement, which was made Tuesday at 6 a.m. CST at the annual symposium organized by the Australia-based International River Foundation (IRF).

“People in San Antonio might not be familiar with his award, but the Riverprize is the Nobel Prize for everyone involved in river and watershed stewardship,” said Steven Schauer, San Antonio River Authority‘s director of government and public affairs, who was in Brisbane with Allison Elder, the River Authority’s director of legal affairs, to accept the award. “In our acceptance speech, we thanked Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, the San Antonio River Oversight Committee, and all the people in our community who have devoted themselves to the river restoration project.”

Allison Elder and Steven Schauer of the San Antonio River Authority, with the Thiess International Riverprize in Brisbane, Australia on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017.
Allison Elder and Steven Schauer of the San Antonio River Authority, with the Thiess International Riverprize in Brisbane, Australia on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2017. Credit: Courtesy / San Antonio River Authority

The San Antonio River’s recognition comes on the 20th anniversary of the award’s founding. It was first named as a finalist in 2014 when the team that oversaw the ecological restoration of Germany’s Rhine River and the return of its annual salmon run was awarded the coveted prize.

For the River Authority, the County, and the City, the honor represents a new level of international recognition of the river improvement project that began in 1998 and was completed in 2014.

“The Riverprize is international recognition on par with UNESCO’s World Heritage designation of the Missions and Alamo in San Antonio, which would not have happened without the restoration of the San Antonio River,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, arguably the most ardent advocate of the project over the last 20 years. “It’s truly the public works project of our time. The economic development from downtown to the Pearl has been remarkable, but the most important piece, I’d say, is the ecological restoration of the river south of downtown.”

Suzanne Scott, who celebrated her 10th anniversary as general manager of the River Authority earlier this year, traveled to Australia in 2014, but stayed home this year to participate in the 2017 EPA Region 6 Stormwater Conference, which formally opens this morning in San Antonio.

“Yay! I am so thrilled,” Scott said Tuesday morning. “This is the leading world recognition being given to our river, a culmination of everything we have done. I am especially glad we won this year when the foundation has focused on the economic impact of cleaning up a river. The environmental benefits of river restoration are the foundation for economic development. It has been that since the time of early settlers through the development of the visitor and tourist economy, and now we see the river becoming a special place for the people who live and work here.

“Our river has been transformed from a flood channel to an ecosystem,” Scott said. “The San Antonio River is the pride of the community.”

River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott speaks to how the park will become an outdoor classroom. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone
San Antonio River Authority General Manager Suzanne Scott says Confluence Park will become the San Antonio River’s “living classroom.” Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Scott and others at the River Authority treated their status as finalists in a low-key manner, realizing the challenge of competing against others in Europe and Asia. Now, with the award in hand, some sort of citywide recognition likely will be organized.

“Our Riverwalk stands as a feat of engineering, conservation, resilience and forward-thinking urban planning,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said after Tuesday morning’s announcement. “Our friends from across the world have marveled at our water recycling methods and asked us for more information on what we do to keep our river clean. This award is a reminder that San Antonio is a leader, whether we are preserving our river or reconstructing our historic sites, the world is looking at what we’re doing.”

A global effort to restore rivers and watersheds has made the Riverprize an increasingly coveted recognition. In Europe alone, restoration projects are underway in a number of countries.

“This year we received a record number of 31 submissions, and the overall quality of the submissions has been higher than ever,” said Bill Dennison, chair of the prize jury. “The finalists represent a stellar selection of river management efforts from around the world. From the restoration efforts in the River Tweed in Scotland, to the conservation efforts for the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers in the remote Alaskan wilderness, to urban river restoration in the Pasig River in the Philippines and the San Antonio River in Texas, these different river stories are united by a common theme: excellence in river management.”

The Riverprize, sponsored by the Bert and Vera Thiess Foundation, is touted as the “world’s foremost award in river basin management.” Bert Thiess, who died in 2010, was the last of five brothers who built one of Australia’s biggest mining, construction, and contracting businesses.

According to the IRF website, the Riverprize “recognizes and rewards organizations making waves in the sustainable management of the world’s rivers, whether at the grassroots or transboundary level.

“The prize rewards inspiring initiatives that demonstrate Integrated River Basin Management to restore and protect rivers, wetlands, lakes, and estuaries. Previous winners and finalists have received widespread recognition, built new partnerships, shared their knowledge, and won other awards following Riverprize, becoming part of a network of river practitioners and experts from around the world.”

Individuals and organizations that wish to support stewardship of the San Antonio River can contribute to the San Antonio River Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit whose current projects include development of Confluence Park where San Pedro Creek flows into the San Antonio River.

The Thiess Riverprize is the foundation’s oldest and most coveted award, but in 2015 the foundation also established specific continental prizes, including the North American Riverprize, which was awarded to the Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper for 25 years of collaborative restoration work with the Buffalo-Niagara River Watershed.

“Among their many achievements, Waterkeeper has ensured that the once biologically dead Buffalo River is now on a trajectory to be de-listed as an Area of National Concern by 2019,” the jury noted, lauding the group’s stewardship of Niagara Falls and the associated waterways.

Schauer, who delivered acceptance remarks in Brisbane earlier Tuesday, said the award is a facsimile of an aboriginal tree bark water carrier. He also noted that once every four years the foundation stages its annual meeting outside Australia. The organization is considering venues for 2020.

“I’ve already started to lobby for the foundation to bring the meeting to San Antonio in 2020,” Schauer said. “Hopefully, our city and river will be under consideration.”

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.