The People's Waterway

Since pre-historic times, the San Antonio River has attracted human habitation. Archaeological excavations have produced evidence that the first human habitation along the San Antonio River occurred as long as 10,000 years ago. In recent centuries, hunting and gathering groups, known collectively by historians as Coahuiltecans, lived along the river and named it Yanaguana.

The first documented arrival of Spanish explorers at the river did not occur until the end of the 1600s. On June 13, 1691, members of a Spanish expedition celebrated Mass on the banks of the river, during which Franciscan priest Damien Massanet renamed the waterway San Antonio because it was the Feast Day of Saint Anthony. Throughout the 1700s, development of what is now the City of San Antonio occurred alongside five Spanish Colonial missions established near the river.

The river was, and continues to be, vital to the community, and it has long been engineered to meet human needs. Acequias, a series of dams and canals, brought river water to the missions and are some of the earliest recorded engineered water systems in the nation.

As San Antonio grew, engineering the river to protect the community from flooding became inevitable. Flooding was a recognized hazard as early as the flood of 1724, which resulted in relocation of Mission San Antonio de Valero (The Alamo) to a safer site. Spanish records reflect that the flood of 1819 swept through many homes in its path. History also tells of floods in 1865, 1880, 1899 and 1913; a deadly flood in 1921, which resulted in construction of Olmos Dam in 1925-1927; a major flood to San Antonio’s downtown district in 1946; and the floods of 1998 and 2002.

During the 1920s, city architect Robert H. H. Hugman developed an architectural plan that included preserving and enhancing the natural beauty of the downtown river and river loop area. Hugman’s plan required support of both public and private interests. In 1938, downtown landowners passed a tax referendum to improve the river. Later, voters passed a bond issue and approved City funding to secure a grant award. Thus began a strong tradition of citizen involvement in development of the San Antonio River. Interestingly, an alternative plan recommended converting the river loop into a drainage culvert covered with pavement. The San Antonio Conservation Society led strong citizen opposition to this idea, urging that the river be cleaned and turned into a city park.

From 1939 through 1941, the pilot channel was deepened, three dams were constructed, underground drains built, and flood gates installed at both ends of the river loop. Aesthetic features included stone walkways and stairwells and graceful footbridges. Also added was an outdoor river bend theatre, preservation of indigenous trees and plants, and Hugman’s northern flood gate, adorned with arches and an arbor that lend an Old World Spanish flair. San Antonio’s River Walk was born.

As a result of the flood of 1946, Bexar County and the San Antonio River Authority (SARA) entered into a partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) to improve flood control along 31 miles of the river and its tributaries. The San Antonio River Channel Improvements Project involved realignment and channelization of the river system and continues to provide an efficient, albeit unattractive, river channel that moves flood waters quickly away from urbanized areas.

As part of this project, Bexar County and the USACE funded construction of the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek tunnels. The tunnels carry 100-year floodwaters 150 feet beneath downtown San Antonio and release it downstream. The San Pedro Creek Tunnel became operational in 1991, followed by San Antonio River Tunnel in 1997. First tested during the October 1998 flood, they prevented millions of dollars in damage. SARA served as the local interest sponsor for the project and designed the tunnels’ inlet and outlet parks and water quality enhancing aeration and recirculation systems. The City of San Antonio operates and maintains the tunnels.

Today and into the future

Today’s engineering technology offers methods to restore the previously straightened and channelized river to its natural, meandering condition, while preserving, and oftentimes enhancing, the flood control element. The San Antonio River Improvements Project (SARIP), a multi-year, $384.5 million on-going investment that is currently underway, will utilize these more environmentally sensitive methods to restore 13 miles of the river channel, from Brackenridge Park, south, to Mission Espada.

The project is funded by the flood control tax and visitor’s tax (or venue tax) collected by Bexar County, by the City of San Antonio, by the USACE and the San Antonio River Foundation. SARA is providing project and technical management and is serving as liaison among the partners – SARA will also fund the operations and maintenance of the project upon its completion. A 22-member River Oversight Committee, created by Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, and SARA, provides a strong citizen voice for the river, guiding design and construction throughout the project’s life.

A new generation of flood management emerged in this community in 2002 with creation of the Bexar Regional Watershed Management (BRWM) partnership. This partnership among Bexar County, the City of San Antonio, SARA and 20 suburban cities takes a holistic, regional approach to managing flood control, storm water and water quality. The program will establish uniform design, operation and maintenance standards; coordinate local, state and federal funding; and provide an opportunity to measure and evaluate the quality of services delivered to citizens of Bexar County. The program also contains a strong public information component. To learn more about the BRWM, visit www.BexarFloodFacts.org.

Source and length

The headwaters of the San Antonio River is a spring known as the Blue Hole located on the campus of the University of the Incarnate Word. The 240-mile-long River flows through five counties before converging with the Guadalupe River and emptying into the San Antonio Bay.