The "Blue Hole"

The "Blue Hole"

Monday, March 14, 2011

"I Love the many other people do."

What nine year old Elena wrote to our city leaders about the headwaters of the San Antonio River is nothing new, but it is still profound.  People have had a love affair with this river for thousands of years.  And no wonder.  Historically, the river “gushe[d] up in one sparkling burst from the earth” and was “classed as the first water among the gems of the natural world” (Frederick Law Olmstead, 1857).  Native Americans know the spring as “Yanaguana,” which means “up-flowing waters of the Spirit.”  In its glory days, San Antonio Spring gave rise to the clear big beautiful San Antonio River that has drawn people to its banks since prehistoric times – and still does. 

Elena was baptized in the springs at the headwaters of the San Antonio River.  Like the Native American peoples before her, she knows the sacredness of the place.  And so do many leading members of the San Antonio community who last June “visioned” a future for the historic headwaters that does honor to this sacred place.  San Antonio Spring – now more commonly known as the Blue Hole -- has always been and remains a font of spiritual renewal for peoples of many different faith journeys.  And if the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word through their Headwaters ministry have their way, it will continue to as long as the spring waters flow.

Some say these historic springs gave birth to our city.  The pure prolific reliable water supplied by these springs led Spanish colonialists in the 1700’s to choose the San Antonio River as the place to build their missions and mission churches.  The missions in turn gave rise to the settlement of San Antonio which has since grown up to become the major American city that we are.  The missions and the springs remain an important part of our living history as they have for centuries. 

“...without doubt one of the most beautiful, if not the most beautiful, places in Texas, its woodland grace and park like beauty so heightened by the perpetual mystery of its profound and noble springs.  This is the Head of the River.  There are other fine properties in this neighborhood with exceptional water advantages and privileges, but this property was really the key to the situation, the Ojo de Agua, the birthright of the city.” (William Corner, 1890)

San Antonio’s love affair with its river has seen plenty of stormy times too.  In the 1860’s, the early town of San Antonio used the river as a sewer and waste disposal system.  That abuse gave rise to cholera epidemics that killed hundreds of early San Antonians.  These epidemics of water-borne disease inspired the Catholic Bishop’s call to the Incarnate Word Sisters in France “seek[ing] relief at [their] hands.”  Three Incarnate Word Sisters answered the call, and upon arrival in San Antonio, founded the city’s first infirmary – an institution we now know as the Christus Santa Rosa Health system, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.  The Congregation of Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word have been founding important lasting institutions in health care, social services, and education ever since.  More recently, the Incarnate Word Sisters founded a new Earth care ministry, offering their healing hands to the care of God’s creation particularly at the headwaters of the San Antonio River. 

1915: Sister with cows
More than a century ago the Incarnate Word Sisters rooted their Congregation at “The Head of the River.”   In 1897 when they acquired the property from Col. George Brackenridge, they described their new home at the headwaters as “truly an overindulgence by Divine Providence.” It consisted of “283 acres of land, 90,000 gallons of water per day, and a magnificent river which passes through our land.”  These founding Incarnate Word Sisters had a wonderful eye for real estate, and the Congregation has enjoyed 114 years of relationship with this historic land and special waters ever since.  But the growth of other important ministries, such as the University of the Incarnate Word and The Village at Incarnate Word (a full service retirement center) have had unintended consequences for the river and its headwaters springs.  Even the purest love can be neglectful at times...

One of the stormier episodes in San Antonio’s love affair with its river occurred in the 1960’s.  The abundance of water in the river was seen by the growing city as an enemy to people and property due to damaging floods.  The river was channelized by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers into near straight concrete ditches to confine and convey the river out of town as quickly as possible.  Among the many consequences, the historic missions were cut off from the river, and the ecology and archeological treasures of the channelized river were devastated.   

But time passes and our understandings evolve.  With a greening consciousness occurring worldwide, San Antonio in the late 1990’s took another look at its historic river and decided it could use some help -- a little facelift, if you will.  The San Antonio River Improvement Project (SARIP) was thus born.  Thirteen years and $300 million later, most parts of the river have been lifted up, restored, beautified and celebrated with an eye to bringing people back to their beloved river.  The “Museum Reach” is now complete with its extension of the River Walk up to the museum district.  The “Mission Reach” is currently under way with efforts to undo some of the damage from channelization in the ‘60’s and to restore the native ecology to the river banks.  The San Antonio Missions are being reconnected to the river through portals and the history of the river is being told along its now more sinuous course.

In light of these developments to do honor to the San Antonio River which has given our community so much, the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word did a visionary historic thing of their own.  In 2008, they gave their last remaining undeveloped acreage at the Head of the River for preservation as a nature sanctuary, privately owned by the nonprofit Headwaters Coalition, but free and open to the public.  The Headwaters Sanctuary includes the San Antonio Spring (Blue Hole) – the mainspring -- as well as 50 some acres of the “spring field” containing many medium-sized and smaller springs that make up the Incarnate Word part of the headwaters.  With the founding of the Headwaters Coalition, and the deeding of the headwaters land, a new ministry of the Incarnate Word Sisters was born.    

Out of this relatively new Earth care ministry has grown a unique opportunity in time and space to connect the historic springs at the Blue Hole to the rest of the river in Brackenridge Park by way of a foot trail with safe passage under a redesigned Hildebrand Bridge. In this way the river would be joined from its historic source at the famous spring to the southernmost Mission Espada.  The importance of the Catholic Church to the development of this region would be woven right into the river and its history as the lifeblood of San Antonio:  the living Mission churches in the south and the Incarnate Word Sisters with three of their ministries at the source – the Village, the Headwaters, and the University.

This final “reach” as an addendum to the San Antonio River Improvement Project has been dubbed the “Spiritual Reach of the San Antonio River,” and for good reason.  Not only is it located in the faith community of Incarnate Word, but it is also a place Native American peoples have long held sacred, singing yanaguana, place of the spirit waters.  Another important faith community at the headwaters is our neighbor, the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas, with their 20-acre sanctuary called Cathedral Park containing a number of lovely natural springs.  The sacredness of all these springs is not lost on us even as they cease, at times, to flow.  Like hope itself, they will always spring forth again bringing new life.  And so, too, will this extraordinary Congregation of Sisters who have suffered (like so many) from diminishing numbers and whose future has at times seemed uncertain.

natural artesian springs

As hopeful and exciting as this river extension opportunity sounds, it is now threatened as never before by a massive storm sewer the City is planning to build in the headwaters area just below the Hildebrand Bridge.  The Hildebrand storm sewer involves two huge concrete tunnels (called box culverts) that are 6 by 9 feet each.  These tunnels are big enough to drive a Volkswagon Bug through! They would dump into the San Antonio River at the very northern terminus of the current San Antonio River Improvement Project:  at the very point of connectivity with the envisioned “Spiritual Reach.”  The storm sewer would carry and convey all the trash and non-point source pollution picked up from our urban landscape when it rains and put it with concentrated force into the river at a very sensitive location.  The high volume, high velocity flow hitting the shallow river would very likely erode its natural stream banks which are known to be full of prehistoric deposits dating back thousands of years.  The west bank of the river across from the outfall also contains remnants of the Spanish colonial acequia system, which would be impacted by the storm sewer, despite what the city-hired consultants might suggest. This so-called drainage solution is vintage 1950's, but we are living in the 21st century in a city striving to be more green.

Problems with Stormwater Outfalls:

Trash from 281 outfall after a heavy rain
Erosion from 281 outfall onto Headwaters

Simply put, better alternatives exist to solving our drainage problems -- alternatives that do not risk as much injury to the river and its adjacent historical resources.  Some of those alternative solutions are being investigated by the County in its county-wide flood control study, some have already been explored -- and mysteriously rejected -- by the City, and other even more progressive ideas are beginning to circulate in San Antonio.

So where did this idea for a storm sewer in the headwaters come from?  In 2007, San Antonio voters approved a series of drainage bonds to improve street flooding and protect property during heavy rains.  One of those drainage projects aimed to carry stormwater from the Broadway-Hildebrand intersection (which floods easily) and put it in an underground drainage system under Broadway (Broadway Corridor Phase IIIA).  For reasons that appear to be purely political, the City re-routed the originally conceived drainage system to run west under Hildebrand and outfall into the San Antonio River near its headwaters.   Why this major change in a voter approved project was made remains a mystery.  It appears to benefit no one, while risking injury to the river at a very sensitive location. 

 The Hildebrand drainage project (aka storm sewer) involves two huge concrete tunnels (called box culverts) that are 6 by 9 feet each.  These tunnels are big enough to drive a Volkswagon Bug through!  They would outfall into the San Antonio River near its headwaters...
This now controversial drainage project has only recently come to light for many stakeholders, including the Headwaters Coalition and the Incarnate Word Sisters.   Apparently, a couple of years ago the drainage project was bundled with a number of street and overhead utilities improvements at the Broadway-Hildebrand intersection that property owners Koontz/McCombs, AT&T and the University of the Incarnate Word wanted.  That way drainage bond funds could be used to pay for all of these improvements.  And the result is that the bitter pill of a massive controversial storm sewer in the headwaters could be disguised behind (or sugar-coated with) the intersection improvements, including turn lanes, buried overhead utilities, new street signals, and the like. 

The public vetting of this project has consisted of only two public meetings and focused details on the street and utility improvements with only obscure mention of the drainage features.  ("We left the technical details out of the public presentations.")  The news media has focused its very limited coverage on the street improvements, the traffic disruptions and the benefits to come from all the mess, paying scant attention to the dangers of and mounting opposition to the storm water outfall.

So many of us have heard of the Broadway-Hildebrand street and intersection improvements which sound desirable and good, but few people are aware of the existence -- much less the size and scale -- of the storm sewer in the headwaters of the San Antonio River.  And it is about ready to go to construction with hardly anyone in the general public even knowing about it.  This ill-conceived drainage project goes against everything the publicly-supported San Antonio River Improvement Project seeks to accomplish in doing honor to our river.  And it virtually wipes out a unique opportunity to complete the historic river project all the way to its source at the headwater springs.  

This entire river connectivity issue is not just about celebrating the river and its role in San Antonio's past and present life.  It is about charting a new future for our children in which we live more honorably and respectfully on the land and with the water -- using the resources the Earth provides, but not abusing them.  It is about finding a more perfect (less stormy) love for our river, which is, after all, the birthright of our city.  It is about honoring the values we hold dear in San Antonio:  natural beauty, history, and our river. 

And it is about leaving a legacy of love for all of Creation to the children who come after us.  

Thank you, Elena, for reminding us of our obligations to you, your fellow young citizens, and the world you will inherit -- and that you will in turn steward for the generations that come after you.   

Concerned?  Want to help?  Consider these actions, and please act fast!
  • Add your voices to Elena's!  Send a letter to the editor.  Blog. Tweet. Chirp!  (...chirp?!)
  • Come to City Council March 31 when City staff hope to gain approval to let a contract to build.
  • Write and call the City Manager, the Mayor, and your council persons.
  • Circulate this story via social media!
  • Get a Don’t Mess with the Headwaters bumper sticker from the Headwaters Coalition and use it!
  • Support the Headwaters Coalition with your time, talent and treasure.
  • Do as the Sisters do and pray for the just and proper resolution of this unfortunate conflict.


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