Riding down the Mission Reach Trail on his bike earlier this month, San Antonio glass artist Justin Parr was heartbroken to see dozens of trees along the side of the path near Hot Wells had been freshly cleared and more were being cut down before him.

Shocked by the change, Parr posted a video showing several of the trees getting cut down, which quickly received attention from other local environmental advocates. Concerned, these advocates reached out to the San Antonio River Authority to demand more information about what they felt was excessive tree clearing.

The removal of the trees is actually part of a systematic update to help control floodwaters locally, said Steven Schauer, SARA’s manager of external communications.

About 10 years ago, SARA, in conjunction with Bexar County and the City of San Antonio, planted roughly 22,000 trees along the river’s banks. The effort was part of the San Antonio River Improvements Project, a more than $384 million river redevelopment program launched in 1998 that included the Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project. This $271.4 million, 8-mile portion of the 13-mile project sought to restore the ecosystems around the river by rebuilding natural river features and planting native grasses, trees and plant life near the river’s edge.

Whereas these native plants provide food and habitat for many of the animal species that live on or near the San Antonio River, they would also help provide bank stabilization to help prevent erosion and to filter out trash from stormwater flowing into the river, according to SARA’s website page about the project.

Over the past decade, Parr noted many of the 22,000 planted trees had grown tall enough to provide shade over the paved pathway along the Mission Reach which is one of the reasons why he was confused by the removal of the trees.

“It just seems like such a waste of our public money; millions of dollars were spent on planting trees and [installing] drip irrigation in 2012, only to spend more for the trees to be cut out and mulched into dirt now,” he said.

In response to Parr and others’ concerns, SARA explained in a blog post that the trees were removed to come into compliance with an updated floodplain model produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2017.

However, the FEMA process to approve updated maps is a long and slow one, so while the data was gathered in 2017, the maps were only recently accepted, said Kristen Hansen, manager of the river authority’s watershed and parks operations department.

The removal of the trees, which began in October, aims to prevent the field from flooding by moving water through and away from the area rather than allowing trees to encourage it to stay in the field, Schauer said. In order to meet the new flood conveyance requirements set by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, the trunks of many of these trees needed to be removed, he explained.

“Over the last decade or so, the 22,000-plus trees that we planted [as part of the project] are doing well, but the project has also seen a significant volume of ‘volunteer trees’ start to grow,” Schauer said. “Those are trees that we didn’t plant — that’s why we call them volunteers, because they just sort of showed up.”

While ecosystem restoration was an important part of the project, flood mitigation has always been a top priority for controlling the river, Schauer said, followed only then by ecosystem restoration and then recreational needs.

While the trees’ trunks were cut down, many of the trees’ roots were left behind to continue to help prevent erosion, Hansen said. Although messaging about the updated maps was circulated last year through the authority’s traditional avenues, Hansen added she is glad local environmental activists are asking about where the trees went because it means they care about the project and all the river authority works to do.

Parr said that while he knew occasional tree mitigation would be needed and that the San Antonio River Authority was responsible for the maintenance of the land, he didn’t expect the clearance of trees to be so drastic.

Irby Hightower, a former co-chair on the San Antonio River Oversight Committee created in 1998 to oversee the planning, design, construction and funding necessary to complete the river improvements project, echoed Parr’s thoughts.

“When I saw what they were doing I was shocked,” Hightower told the San Antonio Report. “It was more drastic than I would have thought would have been necessary. In general, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, which is managing this project to ensure a diverse ecosystem, but I was still really surprised at the scale at which they were cutting [trees] down.”

San Antonio River Authority personnel work to remove trees along the San Antonio River as researchers with UTSA and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department conduct field studies on local fish. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

His surprise is to be expected, Schauer said; the project was designed with data that was collected in 2007-2008. According to that data, only limited mitigation of invasive species would be needed, he said. However, the new data collected in 2017 told a different story.

“So, unfortunately, the maintenance and the floodplain data wasn’t fully aligned” back then, Schauer said.

Hansen reiterated that the removal of certain trees is very strategic, despite what some may believe, and noted the river authority is “leaving the majority of what’s there today.”

“We are only working in the areas that FEMA is telling us we need to remove either all the stems or 10 stems or 50 stems, or however many,” she said. Schauer added the river authority has been working closely with an aviation specialist and other wildlife experts and plans to continue to do so as they work on the project in the months ahead.

“We hope in time that folks will understand why we did this work and come to appreciate it,” Schauer said.

Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett is the Science & Utilities reporter for the San Antonio Report.