Only one week had passed since city crews completed the biennial draining and cleaning of the San Antonio River, removing a record 50 tons of trash over six days, when my wife Monika and I put into the river with kayaks along the King William Reach, just south of the commercial district and above the headquarters of the San Antonio River Authority.

We quickly found ourselves paddling through a sea of floating debris: surgical gloves and facial masks, plastic bottles and shopping bags, and empty liquor bottles and beer cans. This disturbing flotilla of waste posed a threat to aquatic wildlife and water quality, and blighted the scenic residential reach stretching from the Nueva Street dam to the popular Blue Star Complex.

We resigned ourselves to clean-up duty. The photos accompanying this column give readers a sense of what one day’s dirty catch on the river yielded. Never mind the sunken scooter I paddled over, or the used condoms I declined to retrieve. After we landed and loaded everything into an oversized garbage bag, separating all the plastic bottles for the recycling bin, our take was more than we could fit into an empty city trash receptacle.

Collected litter is piled on the banks of the San Antonio River.
Collected litter is piled on the banks of the San Antonio River. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

“This city’s biggest problem is trash,” Nefi Garza, San Antonio’s assistant director of public works, declared in a Wednesday interview. “People at River Walk bars and restaurants are casual and thoughtless about the trash they create and litter. The central commercial district is the big problem.”

Trash washed downstream from the city’s suburban reaches and its extensive creek network, he said, also is a problem, but it is collected and removed at the Olmos Dam.

Garza said city crews sweep downtown streets every night except Christmas and last year cleaned up a stunning 11,000 tons of public trash, with the volume of uncollected litter still sufficient to clog drains and create flooding issues. Homeless encampments, he said, lead to biowaste, used syringes, and other dangerous litter added to the mix.

People in San Antonio from north to south in the city, all along its complex of creeks, disrespect the environment, on land and on water. San Antonio’s littering problem is a national embarrassment. River authorities here and beyond the city involved in grading the annual San Antonio River Basin Report Card regard our litter problem as one of the worst among big cities in the nation.

“Maybe New Orleans is worse,” said Garza, who worked 10 years for the river authority before joining city staff nine years ago. “Trash and litter are problems I’ve been battling for many years in San Antonio. I ask myself, ‘Why? Do we not have pride in our city?'”

For the last two years, San Antonio has been given an F grade for litter on and in the river, resulting in a downgrade of what otherwise are high marks for the remarkable $384.1 million, 20-year San Antonio River Improvement Project.

It took many mayors, city councils, a strong county judge and a sequence of county commissioners, river authority staff, and a small army of community volunteers beginning in 1998 to plan and execute the project, converting a neglected river channel known only for its tourist district into one of the country’s premier urban linear parks.

The project has given residents many miles of river and public park they can now call their own and cherish.

Unfortunately, every storm incident leaves behind a riparian landscape defaced by litter clinging to branches in the understory, floating on the surface, and clogging channels. It takes another army of city and river authority staff and volunteers to undo the damage and restore the riverscape. And then the next rainfall washes down a new tsunami of littered garbage and frustrated crews begin the cleanup anew.

Last September, SARA leaders joined by elected officials and others launched the Don’t Let Litter Trash Your River campaign, designed to heighten public awareness of the problem and the obvious solutions. At the six-month mark it’s hard to see sufficient progress, and that’s because the solution is not really in the hands of local government.

It’s a people problem, and can only be fixed by people deciding we will not continue to be a city known for its culture of littering. Local governments spend millions of tax dollars each year cleaning up the mess left behind by inconsiderate citizens, but the problem persists. Fiesta parades, Garza noted, are especially known for creating masses of thoughtlessly discarded litter.

Various litter is collected while paddling int he San Antonio River.
Various litter is collected while paddling the San Antonio River. Credit: Robert Rivard / San Antonio Report

The river authority and the city’s public works department can’t fix this. The city needs to develop an ethos where its people and its businesses decide litter is not cool, where social mores and peer pressure accomplish what local government can not do on its own. Individuals can do their part by taking the river authority pledge, and even better, becoming a volunteer River Warrior or joining the city’s Adopt-A-Spot campaign. Download the Litterati app to track your cleanup efforts. Educators can access teaching materials here.

A comprehensive program involving all local government entities and school districts should aim to reach adults and children at the very earliest stages of their public school experience, throughout the PK-12 years and on to college and university. Major employers and small businesses should be asked to embrace such an initiative. River signage, especially in the downtown commercial district, should become ubiquitous.

A fixed timeline should be set to demonstrate a citywide turnaround. Until then, our kayaks will fill with trash if we want to enjoy a river free of litter. We cleaned up our stretch on Sunday. It looked lovely on Monday.

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Robert Rivard

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