Throwdown: Drought versus Plants

The San Antonio Riverwalk Extension landscape is taking the heat

By Haylley Johnson

After stopping by the Pearl Brewery Farmers Market, I took a morning stroll down the riverwalk extension with my organic coffee in tow. Sadly, most of this was spent sweating and hiding under a shady overpass alongside fellow San Antonians. While beads of sweat fell into my eyes, I looked out at the plants stuck on the scorching hillside and realized in horror that the plants could never join me in the shade. Drought resistance only takes you so far.

Thankfully seven years of tedious effort, planning, and design created the Museum Reach riverwalk extension. “The project itself stared as a vision as far back as 1998. The San Antonio River Authority, the City of San Antonio, and Bexar County created the San Antonio River Oversight Committee `the citizens' stakeholder group`,” Steven Schauer, manager of external communications for SARA, says. When the design and construction phases of the project began, Ford, Powell, and Carson (an architectural firm) designed the extension, and Zachry Construction Corporation implemented FPC's design — a plan that took our rain-filled Texas weather (just kidding) into account.

“`The landscape` was always meant to be irrigated, but even with a lot of irrigation, you still have to have plants that can stand full sun. They tried to select a lot of plants that were colorful and drought resistance because that's what you want to see,” says Mark Sorenson, SARA's project manager for the San Antonio river museum reach urban segment.

Although right now drought resistance seems the only important feature, other important elements are the plant's aesthetics and their ability to prevent erosion, according to Cullen Coltrane, the landscape architect employed by FPC. No one wants to see an ugly garden, especially one that cost 61.1 million dollars. “As you move further toward Pearl Brewery, you get less tropical and more hill country in style,” Coltrane says.

Yet keeping that lovely hill country garden alive is another story.

Now the extension is open to the public, and the ISS Grounds Control (employed by Zachry to maintain the landscape) works tirelessly to inch the landscape along during our painfully extended drought.

“They will actually be maintaining the whole system for a year. Zachry was required as a part of their bid to insure the entire project for a year,” says Sorenson. “At this point, ISS is taking care of plants for the year `because they were the subcontractors`.”

“We have one full time gentleman that is down there every day,” says Chris Pais, ISS project manager for river extension project. “He is in charge of basically maintaining it to the owner's standards.”

With a degree in landscaping and golf course management from Carleton State University, Timothy Devries is the on-site go-to guy. “We've had to pull weeds by hand because the chemicals dilute and are not effective with the way we've had to water,” he says. They water daily for shorter periods of time instead of four days a week for longer periods — this process lets the water sink into the ground more effectively says Devries.

For those of us who can only water our lawns once a week, don't worry, you aren't getting cheated. “Luckily the water that we are using is recycled water, so the water restriction doesn't affect us until stage three,” Devries says.

“Our irrigation system has control boxes throughout the river walk . . . if it notices something is not functioning properly, and then it sends me an email,” he says. It's something out of the Jetsons — plants that harass you when they are dehydrated.

Even with ISS's unflagging vigilance, a few plants simply can't take the heat. “Some things might look happy going in but they might not be as happy as they look,” says Coltrane. “You are going to have some `plant` decline from transplanting the material, and you are dealing with nature as well.”

“90 percent of it is drought tolerant,” says Pais. But drought tolerance doesn't happen as soon as roots hit dirt. “Once it is established it needs less water, but we are still in the establishment phase.”

Around the time of the extension's grand opening, a 50 foot stretch of Cardinal Flowers died, and Pais is uncertain of the cause. However, he wants to eliminate one possible cause for their death — Pais is waiting until the replacements are fully grown before he puts them in the ground. “We want to make sure the plants are at their proper growth period,” he says.

Overall, the plants are plucky and have stuck it out. Less than 8 percent of the plants struggled, according to Devries, and he takes heart in the irrigation, hard work, and the sky. “As long as things stay wet, we can limp it through the summer,” he says. “Let's hope god blesses us with some water."

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