Archaeological excavations show that the first humans lived along Texas’ San Antonio River as long as 10,000 years ago. Today’s hunters and gatherers—shoppers and foodies—are also attracted to the waterway. From early in the morning until late at night, residents and visitors stroll along the River Walk, a series of pedestrian-friendly routes made possible by a successful PPP that many other communities around the world are trying to replicate.

Shared Responsibilities

Today, the San Antonio River Improvements Project (SARIP), which includes local residents, is expanding the River Walk—restoring the local ecosystem as it engineers new solutions to the age-old problem of flooding.

SARIP is a $384.1 million ongoing investment in flood control, amenities, ecosystem restoration, and recreational improvements along 13 miles of the river. The City of San Antonio, Bexar County, the San Antonio River Authority (SARA), the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), and the San Antonio River Foundation have partnered to deliver the project. SARA provides project coordination among the partners and will conduct ongoing operation and maintenance when the project is completed.

The San Antonio River Foundation has raised money from the private sector to bring artistic, recreational, environmental, and educational enhancements to the San Antonio River.

  • Bexar County will contribute approximately $229.4 million from the county’s flood tax specifically for flood control and ecosystem restoration elements of the project.
  • The City of San Antonio contribution is anticipated to be approximately $76.7 million over the life of the project, from the city’s capital improvements fund for amenities and recreation elements.
  • USACE will contribute approximately $57.9 million to support the ecosystem restoration and recreation elements in Mission Reach and $2.6 million toward construction in the Eagleland segment on the southern edge of downtown San Antonio.

The newest mission

Mission Reach, the section of the San Antonio River Walk targeted for restoration, is of particular historical significance as it links four 18th century missions—the largest collection of Spanish colonial architecture in North America currently under consideration to become a World Heritage site. But in the years since the establishment of these missions almost 300 years ago, this stretch of the river’s original route, beauty, and life had been lost. In the 1950s, after years of devastating floods, Mission Reach was engineered into a trapezoidal storm water channel by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Though it worked well for flood control, the change left this area devoid of native plant life and with a diminished aquatic habitat.

After improvements are made, Mission Reach will once again house the river’s natural environments and aquatic habitat. Over 23,000 new trees (over 40 native species) will be added, along with hundreds of acres of native grasses and wildflowers (over 60 species). Features will also include hiking, biking, and paddling opportunities to reconnect people with the river.

By cultivating this drainage channel back into a functioning part of the San Antonio River, San Antonio is becoming a world leader in urban ecosystem restoration. Representatives of cities from countries such as China, India, Japan, South Korea, Israel, Malaysia, Germany, Canada, Mexico, and Taiwan have visited Mission Reach for inspiration, looking for ways to bring these results to their own communities.

Citizen consensus

From the earliest days of the River Walk to its most recent expansion, citizen involvement has been critical to achieving these sought-after results. In 1998, Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, and SARA officially formed the San Antonio River Oversight Committee (SAROC) by enlisting the support of the same citizens who had been vocally promoting the River Walk expansion. SAROC was created as a 22-member stakeholder committee.

The most important lesson learned from the project relates to the formation of SAROC. Rather than selecting specific individuals to sit as representatives on the SAROC, stakeholder organizations were chosen, and each of the 20 stakeholder entities were responsible for choosing their own representative. By selecting organizations to be members of SAROC rather than individuals, SAROC was created to last for the duration of the project—from early conceptual work to completion of construction. Individual turnover on the committee has occurred, but the institutional project knowledge and interest held by each stakeholder organization was kept intact.

The organizations selected represent a diverse group of stakeholders including neighborhood associations, chambers of commerce, business interests, non-profit organizations, and other community associations. Even the Archdiocese of San Antonio was chosen as a stakeholder, because the 1700s-era missions along the river are still active parishes.

Getting a diverse group of stakeholders along with representatives from multiple branches of government to agree on project concepts and final designs was at times a monumental task. Consensus building was of paramount importance; the unity of voice among the committee members helped to provide clear direction for funding, building, and maintaining the project. This open communication and the vitality of the community—both of which contribute to a sustainable ecosystem that will benefit residents and visitors for many years to come—was critical to the success of the project.