Mission control

The Mission Reach project would restore natural habitats and add public parkland to a segment of the San Antonio River. Can nature and people coexist in an urban waterway?

Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part series about San Antonio River restoration projects. Next week's story will cover the Museum Reach, which extends from Lexington Avenue to Grayson Street.

The Historic Espada Dam on the San Antonio River was built between 1731 and 1740. Flooding has long been a concern along the river. In the 1957, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers straightened segments of it to allow floodwaters to flow quickly out of town. (Photos by Mark Greenberg)

Wide and long, she moves like a muscle snaking through the city. For thousands of years, she has nurtured life along her banks, until the rains come and she opens her jaws, devouring houses and farmland, people and livestock. Then she quickly recedes and pushes toward the sea.

The San Antonio River: Prehistoric Indians settled on her shores. Spanish explorers fought battles near her swales. A city, later to become the eighth-largest in the United States, clustered around her, like nerves to a spine. As people and industry drained, tainted, and tamed her, one might think she had the right to strike back once in awhile.

The Mission Reach Project, an ambitious, $116-million, five-year undertaking by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the San Antonio River Authority, and other governmental agencies, would ecologically restore an eight-mile stretch from Lone Star Boulevard to Mission Espada.

Still, the San Antonio River is foremost a metropolitan waterway, embodying the collision between natural and urban environments. Residents live along her, parking lots abut her, smokestacks tower near her banks. The project itself is designed to attract more people to the river through a linear public park with hike and bike trails linked to nearby historic Missions.

Click the box to see a full map of the eight-mile Mission Reach Project
If successful, the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River eventually will be lush and green and teeming with life. Yet, the millions of people who have inhabited this area over thousands of years have left evidence of their existence, which the Corps must either preserve or remove: From prehistoric pottery to family burial plots, pesticide runoff to plastic bags, the archeological, environmental, and flood-control concerns present the greatest challenges for project engineers, who are coaxing nature to return to an environment at odds with it.

Re-kinking the river, rethinking ecology

Stroll along the river near the San Juan Mission, and you'll find pecans, wild onions, and fish - many of the same foods eaten by Native Americans thousands of years ago. Decayed leaves and plants make alluvial soil near the river black, rich, and fertile, so much so that when the Spanish settled nearby in the 1700s, Fray Espinosa wrote, "The river is very desirable and surrounded by very tall nopals `sic`, poplars, elms, grapevines, black mulberry trees, laurels, strawberry vines, and genuine fan-palms. There is a great deal of flax and wild hemp ... and many medicinal herbs ..."

Although a few gentle bends still grace the river upstream, near Mission San Jose she looks like a ruler. Urban flooding prompted the Corps in 1957 to begin a Channel Improvement Project that straightened the river's s-curves and switchbacks to force floodwaters out of town.

The new Espada Dam is located on the portion of the river that was rechanneled in the '50s.

Dick Davis of the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center is consulting with SARA and the Corps on the Mission Reach Project. He compares the river of yesterday and today: "Now the San Antonio River basically looks like a big drainage ditch, like it was designed by engineers - which it was."

While the project curbed flooding upstream, it also altered and severely damaged the river's ecology. Many native fish and other aquatic life have migrated downstream to more hospitable habitats. Indigenous trees and plants have died or been removed to clear a path for raging floodwaters. Without proper food and shelter, many native animals and birds have abandoned the area.

"It has taken the river from the community," says Jim Boenig, SARA engineering manager. "What was done then in the name of flood control wouldn't be done today."

For the Mission Reach Project, the Corps will reshape the channel to more closely match its original streambed and meandering contours. Engineers will build "steps" in the river, flattening the streambed in some segments and deepening it in others. Constructing shallow dams in the river known as riffles reduces erosion along her banks. The riffles guide the water into shallow, slow-flowing pools and faster-flowing runs. These variations in the water's depth and speed create a more diverse, natural habitat in which native fish can live. And by replanting Texas grasses and trees, and restoring wetlands and woods, project planners hope that native and migratory birds such as the Swainson's warbler, scarlet tanager, and snowy plover, will thrive.

Yet, in welcoming native birds back to the river, natural and urban environments again collide. The Federal Aviation Administration, on behalf of the Stinson Municipal Airport, which lies less than 1/2-mile west of the river, is demanding that SARA conduct a 13-month hazardous migration study to determine if birds could collide with small aircraft.

"This will not hold up the project," Greg Schwarz, SARA's Mission Reach Project manager told the SARA Oversight Committee on February 28. If the study determines that birds could threaten aircraft, project planners must develop a plan to manage the potential hazard.

Reviving native plants also requires a trade-off. With pockets of nut-bearing trees, grasses like little blue stem, and flowers including horsemints and Eagleman's daisy, habitats can also regenerate. Ironically, this overhaul will require killing invasive grasses and plants with a type of Roundup herbicide that is used in wetlands. This herbicide, which Davis says "isn't harmful to animals to any great extent," sticks to plants, and can harm frogs, snakes, and other aquatic animals.

Wildlife isn't the only concern for project planners in establishing natural habitats; the river remains an urban waterway and she must stay within her banks to protect people living nearby. "We can't reproduce what would have been there naturally," Davis says. "We're not going to create a completely natural system, but it can also deal with flood events."

Life along the river

As they have for thousands of years, people populate the river. Across from Concepción Park, along Riverside Drive, and out Mission Road, subdivisions, mobile-home parks, and old farms graze her banks. On a recent Sunday afternoon, rain falls steadily, as it has for the past half day. The river has risen slightly, although not enough to concern East Pyron Street residents, many of whom live just 20 feet from the embankment that cuts a steep angle down to the water.

Architect Mike Lance lives three doors down from the river on East Pyron. Although the Corps' original re-channelization eased persistent flooding in his neighborhood, a 100-year flood would engulf it. In the deluge of 1998, the river broke her banks and swamped homes, but did not wash them away.

Sheila Council lives about 1/4-mile south of Mission Espada. A 16th-century acequia runs through her 100-acre property, which her family farmed for several decades despite occasional flooding.

Flood control is the primary reason that Lance, who also sits on SARA's Oversight Committee, favors the Mission Reach Project; restoring wildlife habitats is not.

"The main problem with the project is that Congress mandated to the Corps that its projects should foremost restore wildlife," says Lance. "I totally disagree.

I like wildlife, but urban areas aren't necessarily suited for that."

For the project, nearly 3 million cubic yards of dirt would be excavated, some of it from the banks near Lance's neighborhood. This will widen the river in spots, giving floodwaters more leeway to maneuver before spilling into neighborhoods.

Lance argues that the project should also cater to recreation beyond the proposed hike and bike trails and scenic overlooks, to accommodate swimmers, fisherman, and boaters. "The river is an asset for the people. `The City` doesn't want people fishing and swimming in the river. We need to make it safe and useful for people."

Although "No Swimming" signs dot the shoreline near the national parks, farther downstream the river is less regulated. On a recent sunny afternoon, several men with a cooler, a shotgun, fishing tackle, and their dog relax along the river about 1/4-mile south of Mission Espada. Some fish from the grassy shore; others row their boat downstream.

"They built the tunnel
and Olmos Dam to save downtown;
that's good, but we've paid the price."

— Sheila Council

Sheila Council, whose family owns 100 acres, part of it adjacent to the river, peers from an eroded embankment two stories down to the fishermen. Her relationship with the river is complicated, her love waxing and waning with the water's rise and fall.

Council's house sits about a 1/4-mile inland and above the river. But downstream, the river bottlenecks and spills into adjacent fields and backs up into the modest houses where she and her extended family live.

"`The Corps` fixed the river and built the embankment," she says. "But if they open the dams downtown you have to watch it because the river jumps."

In February, San Antonio received 2.43 inches of rain. Council received 18 inches in her garage. "They built the tunnel and Olmos Dam to save downtown; that's good, but we've paid the price."

On the opposite bank slump a broken television, a pile of siding, and remnants of lives long gone, although someone recently moved into a new mobile home farther back from the river. "The people on the other side," she says, "they've all moved out."

There are plans to build a retaining wall to shore up the crumbling bank and confine the water to its channel, but Council says she would prefer that the river be widened to accommodate the flow from upstream. "The wall is OK, but it won't work forever. The water will go where it wants to."

While floods occasionally have destroyed the family's crops and sent the cows and pigs running for higher ground, the river also enabled her family to earn a living farming onions, squash, peppers, and corn in rich topsoil. The family regularly swam in the river, although they stopped when sewage flowed into it from a nearby wastewater treatment plant. "They cleaned up the river real well," Council says, but adds that she no longer eats fish from it.

The Mission Reach Project

Who: The City of San Antonio, Bexar County, San Antonio River Authority, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, San Antonio River Foundation, and San Antonio River Oversight Committee

What: The Mission Reach Project would ecologically restore and provide recreational improvements on an eight-mile stretch of the San Antonio River from Lone Star Boulevard to Mission Espada. The Corps previously channelized this segment as part of a federal flood control project.

When: The project is in its final design phase. Construction could begin as early as December 2006 and finish by March 2011.

How: Project designers developing construction plans to reduce erosion while maintaining or improving the flood-carrying capacity of the river. Natural features include almost eight acres of wetlands and 320 acres of river habitat. Other improvements include the modifying bridges, the San Juan Diversion Dam and stormwater outfalls, and utility relocation. Recreational features include seven miles of additional hike-and-bike trails, picnic tables, trash cans, water fountains, overlooks, lighting, benches, and shade shelters.

How much: $116.2 million, including environmental restoration and recreation.

Who pays for what: Army Corps of Engineers, $67.2 million; the County, $30 million; the City, $14.6 million; private funds, $4.4 million.

Where the money comes from: Congress annually authorizes and appropriates federal money, which is included in the Corps' budget. The local portion would be raised by a county flood tax collected from property owners. The City will help fund the project through various bonds and special revenue funds as part of its six-year capital improvement program.

Archeology and environmental concerns: As part of the project, the Corps must conduct archeological investigations and environmental assessments.

Flooding concerns: SARA's preliminary estimates show that 41 fewer homes, including nine in the Symphony Lane neighborhood, will lie in flood plains because of the project improvements.

More information: Visit the SARA website at www.sara-tx.org or contact Erika Resendiz at 227-1373.

"When I was a kid, we'd go swimming down there; we'd see water snakes and alligators," she reminisces. "Why do we live here? When the flood's not happening, it's a really nice place to live."

History beneath the dirt

The artifacts buried in the San Antonio River's banks, nearby pastures, and beneath highways reflect 10,000 years of human occupation, during which Native Americans, Spanish explorers, Mexicans, and Texans relied on her for every aspect of their lives: drinking, eating, bathing, irrigation, and transportation.

Over time, humans have disrupted the delicate historical record. Looters have pillaged archeological sites. Governments have built roads and laid utility lines. Nature, too, has upended the timeline, as floods carried sediment downstream, burying or pulverizing artifacts. Water has washed away the dirt, carrying civilization's footprint far from its original place.

Mark Denton is the Texas Historical Commission's director of the state and federal review section of the archeological division. As the Corps rebuilds the river to more closely mirror the original stream channels where early civilizations lived, he says, "there is a higher probability there are more archeological deposits."

These deposits are easily destroyed. Several years ago, crews disturbed a 6,000-year-old site while building a Texas Department of Transportation trail project along Mission Parkway. Although the site appeared on survey maps, crews dug out a section of embankment; some artifacts were likely crushed or lost. Denton says he recently received reports that part of the bank "is eroding and artifacts are coming out."

The Corps has stated it wants to avoid these types of breaches; any disturbances must be mitigated according to federal law. The Corps' report acknowledges, "Due to the presence of these resources and the likelihood that more exist in areas not previously surveyed, buried cultural resources are likely to be disturbed during any excavation."

According to a UTSA archeological report about Mission Reach, five prehistoric and 13 historic sites, including the Poor Family Cemetery where at least 20 bodies are interred, lie in the project right-of-way; other unknown sites could exist. Among the most sensitive areas are those between Missions San Juan and Espada. In fields, valleys, and hillcrests sleep relics of 6,000-year-old Indian villages and 16th-century outposts that sprang up along the river: Mussel shells, Native American ceramics, Mexican pottery, flattened lead musket shots, adzes - axlike tools used for trimming wood - and bone fragments.

SARA and the Corps may modify their design plan if additional surveys turn up unexpected sites. Since the '50s and '60s, when the Corps straightened the river, all lands within the San Antonio Missions Historic Park have been listed in the federal register. Today, restoring the river changes a sacred geography, says Greg Schwarz: "The actual contour of the land is historic."

Environmental hazards threaten river

Artifacts suggest that humans have affected the river's environment since prehistoric times. As population density increased, so did the impact to the water. By the end of the 19th century, wrote Lewis Fisher in Crown Jewel of Texas, "growth had worn out its river ... Cluttered with refuse and shunned as an eyesore and a cause of disease, the river faced an uncertain fate."

Modern societies have further polluted her. The Corps culled records from state and federal environmental agencies, identifying 23 potentially contaminated areas within 1/8-mile of the river, many of them reportedly sitting over leaking underground storage tanks and hazardous waste. Dry cleaners, neighborhoods, mobile-home parks, golf courses, and auto repair shops stand precariously close to the river, where pesticides, lawn fertilizers, and motor oil can seep into the river through runoff, leaks, or deliberate dumping.

Private industry isn't the only threat to the river. Half of the sites on the Corps' list are identified as city or county property. From 1925 until 1985, SAWS' Rilling Road wastewater plant frequently and illegally emptied poorly treated effluent into the river, raising the amount of bacteria to unhealthy levels. "It was killing the river in the area just south of the plant," says SARA's Steve Lusk.

In the 1980s, SARA and the State of Texas sued the City to correct the water quality violations, and the City agreed to improve the quality of the discharge into the river. SAWS built a new wastewater treatment plant, and the water quality, according to SARA monitoring data, has since improved to the degree that field biologists have found pollution-sensitive species returning to the upper portions of the San Antonio River.

This year, City Public Service plans to dismantle water pipes over the San Antonio River near Roosevelt Park, while leaving a historic footbridge for utility employees to use. The Mission Road Plant no longer provides power. (Photo by Dennis Scoville)

As part of the proposed Hike and Bike Trail and River Improvement Projects, in 2000 City Public Service voluntarily closed leaking fuel oil tanks and removed contaminated soil at its Mission Road plant near Roosevelt Park. Previously, CPS had cleaned up lead and fuel-oil contamination to federal industrial standards. To meet more stringent residential standards, CPS excavated several tanks and 21,000 tons of dirt on the east bank near Mission Road. CPS also removed soil near the roadside that had been contaminated with lead paint from old windows. On the west bank, CPS removed another 16,500 tons of soil tainted with heavy metals, excavating nearly to the river's edge.

(Before the cleanup, the maximum concentration of lead in the soil was 1,920 parts per million; federal residential standards are 500 ppm. Fuel oil compounds measured as high as 38,800 ppm; residential standards are 2,100 ppm.)

For Mission Reach, next week the Corps plans to visit the 23 sites and test soil and water samples to determine the type and extent of any contamination. Many polluters, especially if they've gone out of business, won't pay for the cleanup. The money will have to come from project funds.

"As we acquire land for this project, we start to take on a lot of ownership of whatever is on site," says Schwarz. "We want to fully understand the potential environmental issues before any property is purchased. If a parcel of land has environmental issues, we will work with the property owner to try to get them to properly remediate the site."

The future of Mission Reach

This spring, the Corps and SARA are hiring contractors, surveying environmental and archeological sites, and tweaking design plans. The project's future depends on federal funding, which covers about 60 percent of the cost. Although 2005 funding is secure, the Bush administration's proposed budget allocated no money for the project in 2006. This isn't a surprise: The project was zeroed out for the past several years, but San Antonio's Congressional delegation, including U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, successfully lobbied for funding. "They've been very supportive and I expect that to happen this year," SARA's Suzanne Scott says, cautioning, "but all domestic spending is being cut."

Assuming Congress continues to fund the project, construction is scheduled to begin late next year, when engineers will begin to manage the intersection between natural and urban environments. The Mission Road and Roosevelt Avenue corridor already juxtaposes the two competing interests: Along the skyline, the view of the Mission Concepción belltower is marred by a movie screen at the Mission Drive-In Theater.

The project ends at Mission Espada, south of Interstate 410.

"Are there going to be additional spinoff effects in the area?" asks Mark Denton. "It's a great project, but it's complicated. If it's as successful as the City hopes it will be, what else will it bring to the area? Will people be building fancy condos down there?"

To re-contour the river, SARA must buy or otherwise acquire 138 acres of adjacent land. Some tracts belong to the National Park Service and other public agencies; some are private property. Greg Schwarz says SARA and the Corps are considering a land swap to ease the project's impact on the cultural landscape. Mission Reach requires 50 acres of land within San Antonio Missions Historic Park; the NPS is interested in private acreage near San Juan Mission. SARA would have to buy the private property and the NPS would need Congressional approval for the trade.

"It is my belief it will happen," says Missions Superintendent Steve Whitesell. "We're looking at this long-term. If people don't want to sell now, they might someday. Time is on our side."

Managing the extra parkland will require additional park police and maintenance. While NPS rangers keep tabs on federal land, the hike-and-bike trails and riverbanks will be city property. The NPS says it's difficult to maintain the Mission Trail, as people often steal shrubs, litter the area, or graffiti walls. Many areas of the river are cluttered with debris: suitcases, ice chests, clothing, and Styrofoam cups. Pervasive plastic grocery bags flutter from small trees and brush.

"We know there are folks who misuse the land," says Whitesell. "We need to think about the maintenance and operation of this project."

Without the project, the Corps estimates the river channel will continue to erode over the next 50 years. Ecosystems will suffer. As San Antonio continues to grow, especially to the south, the Corps predicts that additional urban runoff, sediment, and pollution will stress the river.

The river is the reason San Antonio exists, although the relationship between nature and city remains tense. We pollute her, yet she tries to clean herself. We confine her, yet she can break her banks. We market her as a tourist attraction, yet she would rather quietly tell her story, one that is millions of years old, before the people came, when she was part of the sea.

By Lisa Sorg

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