WHEN MANY PEOPLE THINK OF SAN ANTONIO, the River Walk is one of the first things that comes to mind. It has long been recognized as a world leading example of inspiring urban park design and prosperous riverfront development. San Antonio is now demonstrating to the world how it can accomplish something completely different: creating a large scale urban ecosystem restoration project. An extension of the River Walk, known as the Mission Reach, is an urban ecosystem restoration project that has increased the quality, quantity and diversity of plants and animals along eight miles of the San Antonio River just south of the city’s downtown.
Restoring a River
Construction on the $271.4 million Mission Reach project, which was funded primarily by Bexar County, was completed in October 2013. It was one of the first projects of its type to be justified through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) ecosystem restoration cost-benefit process. The restoration included 13 acres of wetlands; 113 acres of aquatic habitat with restored riffles, runs and pools sequences; and 334 acres of riparian habitat planted with more than 10,000 pounds of native grass and wildflower seeds of more than 60 different species. It is anticipated that more than 23,000 native trees and shrubs will be reestablished over time. The Mission Reach also increased recreation opportunities along the river. Trails were installed for pedestrians and bicyclists to enjoy and a paddling trail is available for canoes and kayaks. Improvements to aquatic and riparian habitat are increasing the numbers of native wildlife species allowing fishermen, birdwatchers and other nature enthusiasts more opportunities to enjoy wildlife in an urban area. As the Mission Reach project restores the natural ecosystem of the river and provides new recreational benefits, it also reconnects the river to the historic Spanish Missions that relied on it hundreds of years ago.
Restoration and Repair
While the project is still in its infancy, it is exceeding expectations in many ways. The San Antonio River Authority (SARA) took over maintenance from the contractor as the various phases of construction were completed and accepted. SARA has monitored the project throughout its progression from construction through maintenance in order to ensure successful establishment of restoration plantings. To date, 255 different species of native herbaceous and woody vegetation have been documented by SARA. As a result of diligently managing the restoration vegetation, native plant diversity and land coverage percentages have increased throughout the site. Where previously the area was a trapezoidal drainage ditch dominated by non-native vegetation, now we have a biodiverse, healthy river ecosystem. That being said, the maintenance challenges are real and significant as the surrounding urban environment is full of non-native, invasive species that are constantly encroaching into the project through various means, which is a common challenge for restoration sites. Additionally, the project has successfully withstood several major flood events since 2013, and because of its urban location, even small rain events can cause significant disturbance to the restoration plantings. Despite the maintenance challenges, the Mission Reach ecosystem restoration is already establishing itself well, and the average visitor to the project only sees a beautiful river and surrounding native habitat (with some non-native vegetation). This success is garnering recognition.
A Global Model for Urban Riparian Restoration
The San Antonio River, due in large part to the Mission Reach project, was a finalist for the 2014 International Riverprize Award and 2015 North American Riverprize Award. Additionally, the San Antonio Missions were recognized in 2015 as a World Heritage site, the first such designation in Texas and only the 23rd in the nation. The Mission Reach ecosystem restoration project was part of the nomination process and played an important role in the United Nations inscription process. More people are expected to request information about the River Walk and Mission Reach project as cities around the world seek to restore their rivers similar to the efforts in San Antonio. In the past year alone, SARA has hosted visitors from France, South Korea, Japan, Australia and multiple visitors from China. The Mission Reach project will continue to serve as a global model for urban river ecosystem restoration just as the original River Walk continues to shine for its urban park design and riverfront development. For more about the Mission Reach, including visitor information, maps and a documentary film, please visit SARA’s website at www.sara-tx.org.
Steven Schauer is the manager of external communications for the San Antonio River Authority. He enjoys traveling and hiking and would rather be walking along the Mission Reach than sitting at his desk.