Last week, the San Antonio River Foundation hosted a luncheon program for several hundred supporters, donors and river aficionados at the Bright Shawl. Among others, Rudi Harst, who lives along the Mission Reach, delighted the audience by sharing an account of his daily meanderings along a river transformed, and even more by spontaneously singing, a capella, a verse of a gospel spiritual. Below is the text of his remarks:

For the past two years, I’ve had a front row seat for the astonishing construction process involved in the Mission Reach Restoration Project.  It’s been fascinating to watch this vast project unfold along the stretch of the San Antonio River that runs through our Southside neighborhood, located just south of the old Hot Wells Resort property. This ambitious process is “transforming an eight mile stretch of the San Antonio River into a quality riparian ecosystem (that)… restores riverine woodlands, reintroduces native plants, enhances aquatic habitat and reconnects cultural and historical features.”

In other words, the Mission Reach Restoration is an ambitious attempt to return the San Antonio River to something more closely resembling its natural state, instead of the straight, concrete-lined version of the river channel which the US Army Corps of Engineers constructed in the 1950’s in a failed attempt to maximize flood control in the river basin south of downtown.

Construction on the SA river/Lake Davis through the Mission Reach.
Photo taken about six months ago, during the dredging and re-shaping of the river along the Mission Reach. This wide, flood plain section of the river is known as Lake Davis. Photo by Rudolf Harst.

Now that the major construction phase is winding down, it’s interesting to see the landscaping process taking place:  acres of land along the riverbanks that had been denuded and re-shaped by the bulldozers over the past three years are now being raked flat, covered with gigantic mats of native plant seeds mixed with straw, rolled out and carefully staked down, then top-dressed with compost and mulch, and all irrigated by a brand new network of drip lines, laid out in a precisely measured grid of valves and PVC pipes stretching out for miles.

Drip irrigation system off of Mission Reach
SA river banks off of Mission Reach just after layers of seeds, mulch and a network of drip irrigation was laid down. Photo by Rudolf Harst.

If all goes according to plan, by next spring these riverbanks will be covered in native grasses again, with additional shrubs and trees being planted gradually during the years to come. It’s taken 25 years of planning, three years of construction and over $245 million to make this all happen, but I think it’s well worth the time, expense and work involved.

Once again, the river will be allowed to flow freely, change course periodically and pass through a variety of terrains and wildlife habitats. This will allow for a more complex, healthy ecosystem to evolve, where native flora and fauna can thrive and create a more stable, flood-resistant riverbank while providing a natural water-filtration system for slowing and cleaning urban-runoff waters.  And, as an added bonus, the resulting landscape will provide a more picturesque, healthful and profitable area for tourists and residents alike to enjoy while hiking, biking and boating along the restored waterway.

The same SA river bank just after a heavy rain
The same SA river bank just after a heavy rain. Photo by Rudolf Harst.

What I find most interesting about this project is the new understanding among hydraulic engineers that the river functions best when left in its natural state, rather than being straightened, dammed and channeled, as it had been for decades.  It turns out that allowing the water to meander from side to side while traveling through marshes, by-waters, sandbars and islands is not only integral to the health and purity of the river itself – as well as the flora and fauna that live in and around it – but improves flood control as well.

Sitting on the riverbank, watching the water flowing swiftly through some of the newly created rapids near our house, the river seems likes a good metaphor for my life.  How often have I wished that my personal path could be smoother and straighter?  That my desired outcomes would arrive sooner?  That I could “get there” where I longed to be — without so many forks in the road, so many detours, distractions and distortions along the way?

And yet, looking back over the years, I see that it was precisely the meanders, marshes and detours along the way that have provided most of the blessings and lessons I’ve been gifted with – and that my life would have been much poorer without them…

Resting here, observing the newly planted riverbanks, listening to the water murmuring its way downstream, I take a deep breath and give thanks.  Seeing this familiar landscape with brand new eyes, I realize once again how lucky I am to live near all this natural treasure.  I feel a flood of gratitude for the many gifts I’ve received from this river so far – and for all that is yet to come.  It feels so good I can’t help but start humming as I remember the words to an old folksong from my youth:

I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river,

I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.  

I’ve got peace like a river, I’ve got peace like a river,

I’ve got peace like a river in my soul.  

Listen to Harst signing here.

Rudi Harst opens eyes and hearts as a writer, musician and Spiritual Director of the Celebration Circle of San Antonio, an inclusive interfaith community with a creative approach to spirituality.  This piece was originally posted on his weekly blog, www.celebrationcircle.org/blog.html You can hear more of his words and original music at www.rudiharst.com.

Rudi Harst

Rudi Harst is a writer, performance artist and co-founder of the Celebration Circle of San Antonio, a multi-faith community with a creative approach to spirituality and sustainable living, who performs...