It took 16 years and a $384.1 million public investment to complete the San Antonio River Improvement Project and create the city’s showcase 13-mile linear park that stretches from Hildebrand Avenue south to Loop 410.

Amid the pandemic, say officials with the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), people are coming out in record numbers to recreate and exercise along the river’s reaches, escape at-home confinement, and enjoy an urban nature experience.

Yet the river remains unsafe and off limits for people who want to put down their fishing rods or kayak paddles and jump in for a swim. When will the basin’s river and creeks be swimmable? Sooner than you think, SARA scientists say. Perhaps as early as next summer there will be days or stretches of days where improved water quality will make it safe for adults and children to take a dip in the river. Some people already do, notably along the Mission Reach, but river authority leaders do not recommend it.

For the first time, SARA’s experts are measuring our collective use and stewardship of this unique ecosystem, flood control project, and recreational amenity. The first-ever San Antonio River Basin Report Card has been developed and released, and it measures 12 distinct indicators for the health and well-being of the complex river and creek basin system.

In this first year, the San Antonio community has earned a B grade. Good, but not good enough. The B average reflects A ratings in half of the 12 categories, including the completed restoration system, growth of the whooping crane population, park usage, and paddling standard. It will come as no surprise to regular river users that failing grades are awarded in three areas: F’s are given for public trash and for the failure of most residents living along the river to obtain flood insurance, and a D is given for current swimming standards.

San Antonio River Authority biologists Karen Sablan and Alicia Ramsey collect water samples from drainpipes along the San Antonio River in January to test for E. coli and ammonia. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Opportunities for improvement, then, are evident and largely in the hands of local residents and businesses. A significant step in elevating the health of the basin could be achieved with a community-wide education and awareness campaign to address the city’s serious litter problem. Much of that litter occurs in neighborhoods, around schools, on city streets, and along area highways and then finds its way into the river and creeks through storm drainage systems. The problem is particularly acute and visible along the scenic 8-mile Mission Reach after a serious rainstorm.

Implementing an annual report card measuring the river basin’s health, including improvements and setbacks, allows San Antonio to join a growing international network of healthy-river initiatives. River authority officials used The Practitioners Guide to Developing River Basin Report Cards, conceived and assembled at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science, in developing the local initiative.

In future years, the San Antonio River Report Card will be released on World River Day, the fourth Sunday in September.

Want to learn more about how the report card works? Join the San Antonio Report at noon Tuesday as I lead a panel discussion on “The Path Toward Healthy Rivers and Creeks,” a virtual program free and accessible to the public. Registration is required.

The discussion will offer a local and national perspective, with panelists Melissa Bryant, SARA’s director of technical services; Steven Schauer, SARA’s director of external communications; Dr. William Dennison, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s vice president for science application; and Nicole Silk, River Network president.

It should be particularly interesting to learn what the two national experts, who have helped establish river basin report cards in other cities, say can be accomplished in San Antonio to better protect and manage the river and creek basin.

By any measure, the San Antonio River Improvements project is one of the great public works projects of our time. Each of the four distinct sections – the Museum Reach, the Downtown Reach, the Eagleland Reach, and the Mission Reach – has its own profile and patterns of usage. And the public investment has sparked even greater investment in the surrounding neighborhoods, commercial zones, and downtown.

At this juncture, a B is a pretty good grade. But everyone in San Antonio has a stake in improving that grade. Join us Tuesday for one hour to learn how that can happen and how you can play a role in making it happen.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is editor of the San Antonio Report.