A water feature reminiscent of a Spanish-colonial aqueduct empties into a pool outside the entrance of the Witte Museum. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

The Witte Museum on Monday hosted a panel discussion where conversation flowed around water, a common resource shared by everyone and a commodity that drives power and profit.

Antonio Petrov, assistant professor in the University of Texas at San Antonio’s College of Architecture, Construction, and Planning, moderated the third and final event of the school’s Urban Future Lab’s speaker series “On the Edge of Future: Narratives of the Making of a City.”  

“We would like to place water into the context of commodity and commons,” Petrov said.

The panel also featured author, water historian, and real estate expert Charles Porter; Confluence Park director Frates Seeligson of the San Antonio River Foundation; and Witte Museum President and CEO Marise McDermott.

Porter – whose 2009 book Spanish Water, Anglo Water is a guide to the water law and culture of San Antonio from Spanish-colonial Texas through the 19th century – took listeners through an early history of water in the city.

He described how in 300 years, water went from a community resource shared by indigenous people along the banks and springs of the San Antonio River, to an apportioned system under Spanish rule where everyone got their share of water from the city’s acequias, to a commodity with a price tag that helped fund water and sewer services to a growing city.

(from left) Panelists Charles Porter, Frates Seeligson and Marise McDermott speak at a University of Texas at San Antonio panel on water issues at the Witte Museum on April 9, 2018. Credit: Brendan Gibbons / San Antonio Report

“Water renders land its value,” Porter explained, later ending on the current conflict between cities and rural water users in an increasingly urbanizing state.

Seeligson, who worked in agriculture and native habitat management before getting involved in urban projects, talked about how the San Antonio River and its tributary creeks are becoming part of the commons again as public investments transform them from concrete drainage ditches lined with invasive species to linear parks with trails, wildlife habitat, and art.

The most recent example is the San Pedro Creek Culture Park, set to open its first phase to the public on May 5. Officials estimate the entire San Pedro Creek restoration project to cost $175 million.

“You don’t have to fight with your environment,” Seeligson said. “You can work with your environment, and your environment will take care of you.”

McDermott told the crowd about future plans for the Center for Rivers and Aquifers, an addition planned for the northern end of the Witte’s campus that will help visitors experience every facet of water in Texas.

A collection of galleries, exhibits, and classroom space will take visitors on a journey of water through underground aquifers, springs, and rivers to pipes in the home, often with the help of virtual and augmented reality, McDermott said. Other exhibits will focus on “the beauty of water” and water policy.

“Everybody goes to the voting booth, so we have to be informed,” she said.

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Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.