Grab your paddles, San Antonio. Woodlawn and Elmendorf Lakes will soon have kayak, canoe and paddleboard rentals.

Last week the City Council approved an agreement with The Expedition School, an Austin-based outdoor education company, to bring recreational watercraft rentals to the two lake parks. The new agreement will expand recreational opportunities for those who don’t own their own gear, said San Antonio Parks and Recreation Director Homer Garcia.

Steve Graham, assistant general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, said the move is a win for San Antonio residents.

“We at the river authority are thrilled that water-based recreation is becoming more common [here].”

The river authority has long tested the water at Elmendorf Lake, and could begin regular testing the water at Woodlawn Lake. Both bodies of water — as well as the San Antonio River — see elevated bacteria levels after rains, which can increase the risk of illness if ingested.

Neither the city nor the river authority post notices about increased bacteria levels when they go up.

“Really, it’s up to the individuals who are recreating on that water to make that decision,” Graham said. “And the vast majority of the time, the water quality is very good.”

Garcia underscored that paddling has long been available on several waterways in the city with no reports of concerns, and the goal of the new rental program is to boost access.

As part of that effort, the Expedition School will bring more than just rentals to San Antonio.

The company will also offer health and wellness programs, camps, adaptive paddling equipment and professional water safety courses at the lake parks, city staff said. Adaptive paddling equipment allows users with a range of disabilities to kayak, canoe and paddleboard.

The Expedition School was started by Kimery Duda in 2006 with the goal of making paddle sports accessible to everyone and encouraging a love of nature. Duda said she is excited by the development.

“Both locations will serve as outdoor schools for youth, provide professional and transformative outdoor education programming, and custom-tailored adventure team-building events for groups,” she said.

Rentals and educational programming are anticipated to launch this spring. 

Paddlers are already allowed to bring their own gear to Woodlawn and Elmendorf lakes, plus parts of the San Antonio River. After a 30-year ban, the city began allowing kayaking through the River Walk’s scenic business district in 2020.

Rentals are also available on the river. Mission Adventure Tours rents kayaks to those who want to paddle downtown, while the Texas River Co. rents kayaks from Roosevelt Park.

Water quality for paddling

The San Antonio River Authority regularly tests the water quality at Elmendorf Lake, and may soon restart regular testing of Woodlawn Lake. Courtesy/ San Antonio River Authority.

The safety of bodies of water for human use is based on bacteria levels, and E.coli is used as the testing standard — its presence in water is a strong indicator of sewage or animal waste contamination.

Water should be 630 cells per 100ml or less to safely partake in paddle sports on it, per the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. This standard is based on how likely one is to ingest water while performing specific activities.

Elmendorf Lake averages around 160 cells per 100ml, said Shaun Donovan, the River Authority’s manager of environmental sciences.

“If the number was zero, it means there are no bacteria in the water whatsoever, and if the number is 1,000, that means there are 1,000 of these cells per 100 milliliters of water.”

Donovan said the river authority has tested Elmendorf’s water quality since 2017, when it oversaw the installation of a low-impact development feature to help filter stormwater flowing into the lake.

“We’ve seen really, really good water quality in Elmendorf Lake in general,” Donovan told the San Antonio Report.

The river authority doesn’t test Woodlawn Lake regularly, although it has in the past, and may do so in the near future. It did test Woodlawn Lake’s water on May 5, June 15 and June 16 of 2021 for the city, in anticipation of allowing watercraft rentals. The E. coli values were 2,000, 520 and 6,100 respectively, Donovan said.

“It’s important to note the two highest values were observed only one day after a rain event,” he said. “The 520 value was observed 10 days after a rain event and is likely more indicative of normal water quality conditions in the lake.”

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Lindsey Carnett

Lindsey Carnett covers the environment, science and utilities for the San Antonio Report.