River Reflections: San Antonio Leaders Discuss Our Water Future At Panel

Nov 6, 2017

Water quality was at the top of everyone’s mind at the eighth annual Water Forum sponsored by San Antonio Clean Technology Forum. Even before opening the program, several speakers cited the quality of San Antonio’s water. Andrew Sansom, who was awarded the Water for Life award for his work with the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment, among other achievements, noted in accepting the award, “San Antonio a beacon of hope for the rest of the United States with respect to water.”

But there were also concerns for the future, both with regard to development as well as how San Antonio might handle a storm the size of Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than 40 inches of rain in two days over the Houston area in late August, 2017.

Listen to the full panel in the audio link below. Two excerpts are also transcribed below the link. 

Moderator: Robert Rivard, Founder, Rivard Report. Panelists:

  • Nicole Silk, President, River Network
  • Suzanne Scott, General Manager, San Antonio River Authority
  • Lyle Larson, House Natural Resource Chairman
  • Ron Nirenberg, Mayor, City of San Antonio.

Suzanne Scott, on what would happen if San Antonio encountered a Harvey-like event:

The simulation basically shows that the Olmos Dam would be overtopped by four feet. That's the way it's designed it would go... it would not breach the dam. So that's a lot of water... [it would] come down in the river in a wave. The zoo would be flooded. Broadway would be flooded. The River Road neighborhood downstream here would also suffer the effects. So it would be a major, major storm here. You really can't build yourself out of these kinds of storms. They're just so massive. But one of the things that our model is showing us as we're moving down towards the downtown part of this is …. two tunnels, one under the San Antonio River, and one under San Pedro Creek, really will provide a tremendous amount of protection.

It has been devastating in Houston, and I think that it is a lesson for us to understand that how frequently these storms are going to be coming. We need to think about development standards. We need to think about how we look at our community and the resiliency that we have as a community going through these types of efforts.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, on how development affects runoff, and future thinking

For decades... we've been dealing with issues of runoff and floodwater by trying to move the water away from the city as fast as we can, building concrete culverts and drainage channels and things like that, which makes sense. If you're trying to reduce flooding in any area you can try to move that water away as fast as you can in a way that we have been trying to accommodate ourselves to nature.

What the work of the San Antonio River Authority has done [is they’ve] taught us that there is a much healthier way for us to deal with this and also be able to live in a community. That issue of dealing with storm water runoff not only for the health of the river, which is an economic development jewel as well as a tourism magnet....and it's important for our ecosystem.

It's incredibly important for us to deal with the health of our San Antonio River. The way we can do this is rather than accommodating ourselves to nature-- [instead], work with the natural terrain to let nature do the work that it has already been doing for centuries, through low-impact development techniques, through building and developing a growing community in areas outside of the natural floodplain.

We've been getting better at this. We're using data to drive our development practices. Where I hope this is going, listening to the public again as our SA Tomorrow process has taught us to do, is that we learn to accommodate what will be another million people in this community over the next 25 years in a way that more closely resembles the natural terrain of our community. We are blessed to be in San Antonio in many ways, the river being one of them. The terrain of the rolling hills down into the basin is another one. And if we acknowledge the fact that we just can't build over and ignore the natural terrain, we'll all be a healthier community, we'll all be able to enjoy a healthy river, and we'll be able to leave a greater city for our future generations.