The uncertainty brought about by the coronavirus pandemic has caused anxiety, impacted plans, and altered lives in one way or another. For many, the tranquility of the outdoors has provided an escape from the stress of the current times.
The Rivard Report has kept up with this trend by covering urban fishing, the extension of the Mission Reach trail system, the desire to kayak in downtown, and people using the outdoors to escape being cooped-up at home. COVID-19 has reminded us that our creeks, rivers, parks, and green spaces are woven into our life as places that we need for personal physical and mental well-being as well as our community’s economic strength, which is why it’s important to preserve the health of these spaces.
I’m happy to see that the San Antonio River Authority (River Authority) parks and trails have experienced a significant increase in use over the last several months. Trail counters along the Mission Reach registered nearly 124,000 hits this April and May. That equates to over 7,000 more users on the trails each week this year as compared to this same time in 2019, which is an 83 percent increase. Paddling along the river is also growing as people (practicing social distancing) are taking to kayaking to get fresh air and disconnect from virtual learning and remote work in order to relax along the river.
In addition to more people enjoying the Mission Reach, River Authority, local wildlife is thriving. We recently concluded an avian study that counted over 65,000 birds using the restored habitat. Resident birds and migratory birds were counted totaling more than 200 different bird species. A few years ago, we collaborated with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to reintroduce the native Guadalupe bass, and our scientists have identified the fifth generation of this bass species now populating the Mission Reach. River Authority scientists are also planning to reintroduce native mussels. We are demonstrating it is possible to increase the quality, quantity, and diversity of native species in and along an urban river while maintaining critical flood conveyance, improving quality of life for area residents, and stimulating economic benefits for the community.
Aside from the apparent benefits of the Museum Reach and downtown River Walk, the ecosystem restoration along the Mission Reach also provides economic benefits. The recreational amenities available in this restored habitat are also being used as a quality of life selling point to convince people to move to San Antonio. The health of the San Antonio River, and the networks of creeks and rivers throughout the basin, is vital to our community’s collective quality of life and economy as well as our long-term resiliency and sustainability.
While more people are enjoying a relaxing time along the river and wildlife is thriving, a couple of recent Rivard Report stories show how quickly human actions can threaten the environment. An ammonia spill earlier this month killed more than 5,000 fish. River Authority staff will oversee restoration efforts and are staying engaged with regulatory agencies to pursue an appropriate response to this fish kill event. Fortunately, the response was quick and no long-lasting harm is anticipated from the spill.
The River Authority is also responding to invasive apple snails. This invasive species has been introduced into our basin by people who have illegally dumped their fish tanks into the river. These snails have few native predators and are voracious herbivores. If they were to establish in the Mission Reach, they would pose a threat. Therefore, our experts are trying to eliminate them where they have been spotted in the Museum Reach and downtown sections of the River Walk. Please remember, never dump your aquarium into the river or any other freshwater or saltwater body.
River Warrior volunteers help the River Authority with ecosystem restoration activities like planting native grasses and trees, removing invasive species, pruning, mulching trees, picking up litter, and helping maintain native habitats along the Mission Reach and at other River Authority parks like Confluence Park and John William Helton-San Antonio River Nature Park. The River Authority also offers trainings and educational events to the River Warriors so they can gain knowledge about sustainable, green infrastructure strategies like building rain gardens and become river protection ambassadors.
We are fortunate to live in a community with a long history of voter support for natural resources and elected leaders who have approved forward-thinking investments. This has resulted in, among other important initiatives, the historic San Antonio River Walk, the Museum Reach and Mission Reach additions to the River Walk, San Pedro Creek Culture Park, the Howard Peak Greenway Trails, and numerous area urban and nature parks. These places define our community and connect us to each other and to nature.
As we look toward recovery after these challenging times, it is our collective responsibility to protect our natural resources, provide more opportunities for green spaces, and connect people to nature as our population grows. San Antonio will eventually emerge from the COVID-19 crisis. When we do, let’s make sure that these spaces continue to serve our community.