Brief History of the San Antonio River Authority
The following information is a chronological look at SARA’s history, from its inception in 1937 to the present day. A brief look into the future of SARA is also included at the end. To learn more about all of SARA’s current projects, please browse SARA’s website. If you’re interested in learning more about SARA’s 75 years of service to the communities of the San Antonio River Watershed, please visit the Institute of Texan Cultures, which is where SARA’s archives are housed.
Construction of the SACIP remained the focal point of SARA throughout the 1960s. A severe flood in 1965 led to the project boundary being expanded in 1967. In 1968, the King William section of the SACIP was completed, which garnered the Chief of Engineers’ 1971 National Award of Merit for General Landscape Development. By the end of the decade, SARA had advanced over half of the construction on the SACIP, constructed fifteen dams of the Salado Creek Watershed Project, completed the San Antonio River Basin Pollution Prevention Study (the first of its kind in the state), opened two wastewater treatment facilities and further expanded its mission by including recreation with an agreement to operate Braunig Lake and Calaveras Lake Parks.
In 1973, the San Antonio River Corridor Study was completed, providing a conceptual plan for improvements along the San Antonio River from Hildebrand to I.H. 10 through downtown San Antonio – the study was a precursor to today’s San Antonio River Improvements Project (more information about the San Antonio River Improvements Project is found in the sections related to the 1990s to the present). SARA led an engineering study of the structural integrity and adequacy of Olmos Dam in 1974, and by 1979 headed construction of the dam modifications, which were completed in 1982. SARA’s Upper Martinez and Salatrillo Creek wastewater systems expanded in 1974. SARA staff moved into their new main office and laboratory facility at 100 E. Guenther in San Antonio in 1975 – this building still houses SARA’s main office. From this new facility, SARA began providing laboratory analytical services to the Texas Water Quality Board and its successor, the Texas Department of Water Resources in 1976. Also in 1976, SARA worked with the City of Floresville to partially fund the Lodi Creek Drainage Project. Acting as a leader in water conservation, SARA enacted an Urban Water Conservation Program in 1979 requiring water-saving plumbing fixtures in all new development added to SARA’s sanitary sewer systems.
Throughout the 1970s, SARA constructed infrastructure and amenities for both Braunig Lake and Calaveras Lake Parks. Advancing additional parks and recreation activities, in 1979 SARA cooperated with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to add some public facilities to Goliad State Park and supported the initiation of planning by the National Park Service for the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park.
Throughout the 1980s, SARA was active in water conservation and development, which included providing input to an Ad-Hoc Committee on Water Planning for the City of San Antonio (1981); helping establish the Xeriscape Project which demonstrated water conservation through selective landscaping with native plants and water-saving irrigation techniques (1985); participating in a technical advisory capacity in the “San Antonio Regional Water Resource Study” (1986); and completing the “Water Availability Study for the Guadalupe and San Antonio River Basins” (1986).
SARA’s regional water quality laboratory expanded services in the 1980s, as did SARA’s wastewater treatment plants. By the end of the decade, four additional dams were added to the Salado Creek Watershed Project, bringing the total number of dams operated and maintained by SARA to 13 in Karnes County and 25 in Bexar County. SARA continued its support of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park by conveying to the park several parcels of land adjacent to the San Antonio River to expand and enhance the newly created National Park. Recreational use, primarily fishing, at Braunig Lake and Calaveras Lake Parks also continued to increase throughout the decade.
Throughout the 1990s, SACIP work also continued on San Pedro, Alazan, Martinez and Apache Creeks. An additional dam was completed as part of the Salado Creek Watershed Project in 1996, and the final dam to be built within Salado Creek Watershed began construction 1998. Also in 1998, SARA authorized the creation of a local stakeholder group to be named the San Antonio River Oversight Committee (SAROC), whose purpose was to advise SARA, the City of San Antonio (COSA) and Bexar County on planning, design, project management, construction and construction phasing and funding for the development of flood control and amenity improvements on what would become known as the San Antonio River Improvements Project (SARIP). SAROC is still active today as SARIP is scheduled to be complete in 2013.
The mid-1990s also saw SARA complete several water quality activities, including: a water quality study in the River Loop area for COSA; a multi-year partnership with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) to fund water quality and stream flow monitoring stations; a nonpoint source pollution pilot study with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC) and regional water quality studies (also with the guidance of TNRCC’s Clean Rivers Program); a Total Maximum Daily Load assessment on Salado Creek; and a biological study in the vicinity of Kelly Air Force Base.
Maintenance, improvement and expansion of SARA’s wastewater services continued to be a top priority in the mid-to-late 1990s, and the agency’s success was reflected by being awarded the 1995 EPA Region 6 Regional Administrator’s Environmental Excellence Award for Operation and Maintenance at the Martinez II Wastewater Treatment Plant. Additional wastewater service awards garnered in the 1990s included a National Award for Operation and Maintenance and the Regional Administrator’s Environmental Excellence Award in 1996, both from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Identification of potable water resources was a top priority for SARA and other public entities in the 1990s. As a result, SARA entered into various agreements, participated in studies or generally coordinated with numerous water agencies including the Edwards Aquifer Authority (EAA), Texas Water Development Board (TWDB), San Antonio Water System (SAWS), Bexar Met, Nueces River Authority, Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) and Guadalupe Blanco River Authority (GBRA). Passage of Senate Bill 1 by the Texas Legislature in 1997 led to the TWDB designating 16 regional water planning areas across the state; the SARA district was included in the Regional Water Planning Group for Region L. In 1998, SARA was asked to serve as the administrative agency for Region L – a responsibility SARA continues to have today.
Activities pertaining to parks and recreation in the 1990s included: leasing SARA property at two dam sites for recreational development; coordinating with the City of Converse to use the Martinez Site 4 as a city park; supporting COSA’s Open Space Planning efforts and Mission Trails Project; and constructing park road improvements at Braunig Lake and Calaveras Lake Parks.
Following the devastating floods of 2002, SARA focused on another major flood control project related to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) buyouts in the Cibolo Creek floodplain – this extended to the City of La Vernia, Kendall County (Comfort) and a subdivision in Bexar County by 2004, and Falls City, the City of Goliad and Goliad County by 2005. The 2002 floods also served as a catalyst for the creation of the Bexar Regional Watershed Management (BRWM) partnership which brings SARA together with COSA, Bexar County and 20 suburban cities within Bexar County to work cooperatively on water quantity and quality issues. The final dam within Salado Creek Watershed Project was completed in 2004, and dam rehabilitations in the Martinez Creek and Salado Creek watersheds were completed in 2005 and 2007. Beginning in 2006, SARA worked with FEMA to update and convert Bexar County flood maps to a digital format. SARA proceeded to take the lead in creating the new digital flood insurance rate maps (DFIRMs) for the entire SARA District, which resulted in some of the most detailed DFIRMs in the nation becoming official in 2010. In 2008, Bexar County Commissioners Court approved a Flood Control Capital Improvements Program – through the BRWM partnership, SARA provided the county technical assistance with the planning for capital improvement program and real estate acquisition services for the program.
Water quality programs that had been developed in the 1990s continued to expand throughout the 2000s, adding the following projects: a biological survey of the San Antonio River to assess the risk of ecosystem stress resulting from groundwater contamination possibly related to area military activities; a wastewater monitoring and laboratory analyses project associated with a research study on restaurant wastes; a baseline fish population inventory near the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park; a watershed protection plan for SARIP for the purpose of describing targeted water quality issues, pollutants, nonpoint source pollution management measures and a schedule for their implementation; and a River Loop water quality and flow study. On a basin level, SARA became the lead agency to conduct a total maximum daily load assessment project to address dissolved oxygen and fecal coliform bacteria problems. SARA conducted a water quality monitoring and laboratory analyses project associated with a bacterial survey of the lower San Antonio River and development of a network of remote water quality monitoring stations throughout the river basin. The water quality monitoring activities associated with the Clean Rivers Program continued, as did SARA’s cooperative project with USGS for operation and maintenance of stream flow monitoring stations. SARA also conducted an instream flows study and a fish community sampling study in the lower basin. The increase in tasks related to execution of the various contracts placed a significant load on the SARA lab, which experienced not only expansion but investment in state-of-the-art equipment during the first decade of the twenty-first century. In 2007, the Environmental Sciences Department Laboratory held its grand opening, and a few months later, the lab received National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation.
As Bexar County experienced significant population growth, SARA responded by improving and expanding its wastewater treatment services. Numerous requests came to SARA for wastewater treatment services within Bexar County and in adjoining counties, and SARA responded by conducting regional wastewater facilities studies and assessments of cities and unincorporated areas in Bexar, Wilson, Karnes and Goliad counties. SARA went on to either take over or offer assistance to numerous wastewater facilities in smaller communities throughout the basin. In 2009, the SARA Utilities Department and the City of Somerset received the Water Environment Association of Texas Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Year Award.
With regards to potable water planning, SARA continued its administrative role with Regional L, and entered into an agreement with SAWS and GBRA to secure the under-utilized portion of those water rights as a raw water supply for 50 years. When this agreement with SAWS and GBRA was terminated, SARA continued its involvement with a larger leadership role by agreeing to complete the Whooping Crane and Estuary Responses Project joint studies. SARA’s involvement with water supply issues in the downstream counties was an important part of the agency’s basin-wide program, including: entering into agreements to help provide potable water and sewer service to the citizens of Berclair and Fannin in Goliad County; providing grant funds for construction of the Cologne water system in Goliad County; joining Kenedy in Karnes County to submit a joint TWDB grant application to improve and upgrade the city’s desalination facilities; and as a public service, purchasing the Calico Water System in Wilson County that provided water service to three subdivisions. By 2005, SARA began to take steps to acquire water rights by purchase to help ensure adequate environmental flows in the river. Throughout the 1990s, SARA was involved in discussions about how best to balance the use of Edwards Aquifer water for drinking with the need to provide flows to Comal and San Marcos Springs. In 2006, the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) brought together a group of stakeholders, which included SARA, to participate in a regional, collaborative process to develop a plan to contribute to the recovery of the federally-listed species dependent on the Edwards Aquifer. This stakeholder process became known as the Edwards Aquifer Recovery Implementation Program (EARIP), and SARA has had a significant role in the EARIP from its inception through the present.
SARA remained committed to the recreational opportunities offered by the facilities at Braunig Lake and Calaveras Lake Park; however, in 2008, SARA amicably ended its 40-year relationship with CPS Energy to operate the lake parks in order to pursue other types of recreational properties throughout the basin. Other initiatives associated with parks and recreation activities occurred in southeastern Bexar County and in Wilson and Goliad Counties within a context of basin-wide planning led by SARA. One of the first new recreation projects was an interlocal agreement with Wilson County for the development, operation and maintenance of Jackson Nature Park, a 50-acre tract on Cibolo Creek that had been donated to the county in 1999. In 2003, a regional park planning advisory committee was created which was tasked with providing community outreach and oversight to staff and consulting planning for an integrated regional network of nature-based park resources. Phase I of the Regional Park Planning Advisory Committee report was completed in early 2005, and Phase II was approved in late 2005. In 2006, SARA adopted Phase II of the San Antonio River Basin Plan for nature-based park resources, and established a Regional Park Coordinating Council to provide a forum for organizations involved in the plan. By 2007, SARA opened the Goliad Paddling Trail, its first officially designated paddling trail, and in 2009, SARA purchased nearly 100 acres of land along the San Antonio River in Wilson County to be known as the Helton San Antonio River Nature Park.
Growth in the number and complexity of programs administered by SARA in the first decade of the 21st century was made possible, in part, by the many interlocal agreements SARA executed with other agencies and by the board’s decision to reinstitute the ad valorem tax on property within the four-county river basin beginning in the tax year 2002.
Additional rehabilitation work on the dams operated and maintained by SARA was authorized in 2010, 2011 and 2012. SARA also took the lead on dam rehabilitation work outside its District when it agreed to oversee the work being done to the Medina Dam – that work is scheduled to be completed in 2012. From the late 2000s through 2012, SARA continued to work to leverage the DFIRM investment, both locally and with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This leveraging includes: SARA’s role as a Letter of Map Revision (LOMR) Delegation Partner with FEMA; SARA’s roles in FEMA’s RiskMAP program and recent mapping updates; SARA’s role with Emergency Operations Center on the Flood Alert System for Bexar County; SARA’s recent update of the downstream flood warning system; and SARA’s development of holistic watershed master plans.
SARA’s wastewater service continued to receive honors, winning the Water Environment Association of Texas 2010 Municipal Wastewater Treatment Plant of the Year, which went to the Salatrillo Plant and SARA Utilities Department. Work continues on a new wastewater treatment facility in Bexar County known as the Graytown Road wastewater system. Additionally, an agreement was signed with the Alamo Community College District for SARA to provide permitting, project management, construction and ongoing operations and maintenance services for a new wastewater treatment plant at the ACCD First Responders Academy Campus, which is set to begin construction in 2012.
From the late 2000s through 2012, SARA has been involved with a number of water quality projects including: the administration and development of a total maximum daily load implementation plan for the upper San Antonio River and Salado and Walzem Creeks; the River Walk Implementation Project in the River Loop area; an agreement to conduct water quality surveys on Leon Creek as part of the Leon Creek total maximum daily load program; administration and conducting of water quality monitoring activities in accordance with the Clean Rivers Program; providing water quality modeling services for the Texas Instream Flows Program and Lower San Antonio River Instream Flow Study; undertaking total maximum daily load related projects in the San Antonio River Watershed; revising and updating of the Upper San Antonio River Watershed Protection Plan; and continuing long-standing water quality studies with the USGS.
Relating to both water quality and quantity; the Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission and Aransas Rivers and Mission, Copano, Aransas and San Antonio Bays Basin and Bay Expert Science Team (BBEST) and Basin and Bays Area Stakeholder Committee (BBASC) submitted their recommendation reports in 2011. SARA has actively participated in both committees with SARA’s General Manager chairing the BBASC and an executive team staff member being appointed as a voting member of the BBEST. Additionally SARA provided administrative support to both committees to assist in meeting the Legislature’s strict deadlines. In 2012, the EARIP stakeholders submitted a plan for approval to the FWS, and SARA’s role in the EARIP process expanded as SARA took on the responsibility to acquire 40,000 acre/feet of water in support the EARIP plan.
With development of the Eagle Ford Shale oil and gas fields underway by 2009, SARA became involved in a number of issues related to the burgeoning oil and gas exploration and development. Given SARA’s ownership of the bed and banks of the San Antonio River and its tributaries, conveying easements across the San Antonio River and its tributaries to oil and gas companies and conducting onsite monitoring of the construction of the pipeline quickly became a role SARA played in the Eagle Ford Shale development. SARA also amended its surface water rights permits for irrigation use in Bexar, Wilson, Karnes and Goliad Counties to add the purposes of environmental flow, recreation and pleasure, public parks, navigation, game preserves and industrial and mining uses. The new permitting requirements allowed SARA to lease surface water rights, which incorporate instream flows protections, to oil and gas companies and use the fees to fund environmental investigations and studies in the lower basin. Continuing its work with oil and gas companies, SARA provided information to the private sector companies on issues related to hydraulic fracturing (e.g. visiting well sites to suggest ways to make site more environmentally sound with regards to onsite detention). Additionally, SARA started working more closely with County Floodplain Administrators to develop a checklist of best management practices that are need to obtain permits for oil and gas sites being developed in the floodplain. In 2011, SARA organized a multi-agency summit to bring all the different regulators together in order to share information and develop contacts with each other. SARA also began working with the USGS in a Lower San Antonio River study of chemicals typically used in the hydraulic fracturing process to establish a baseline – future monitoring of chemicals will use this baseline to determine if more/less chemicals are found in the San Antonio River.
Furthermore, SARA installed a USGS water quality gauge at Highway 72 and the San Antonio River to monitor any changes in water quality. SARA will continue to fund the operations and maintenance of the gauge. Continuing its outreach to the local communities most impacted by the growth of the Eagle Ford Shale Play, SARA began hosting community workshops in 2012 to educate community officials, staff and citizens and various topics. SARA also started developing an ordinance booklet in 2012 for lower basin communities to use as a template to update land use regulations (e.g. how to better manage the growth of trailer parks and the use of septic systems or improve development standards to minimize stormwater runoff concerns). Taking a long-term view of the Eagle Ford Shale development, SARA began promoting the donation of surface water rights by the oil and gas companies when the water rights are no longer needed for shale development – these donated water rights will be used to aid in environmental flows protections. Additional long-term planning by SARA included promoting conservation easements to area land owners to protect their land in perpetuity. Finally, in cooperation with the San Antonio River Foundation, SARA is working to educate oil and gas companies on opportunities to support various river related parks, education programs and environmental studies throughout the basin with philanthropic contributions or by other means.
Beginning in 2011, SARA started spearheading discussions with the lower basin municipalities and counties regarding the formation of a Regional Watershed Management partnership (similar the Bexar Regional Watershed Management partnership we helped to create in Bexar County back in 2003). By the end of 2012, it is anticipated that this new Regional Watershed Management partnership, which may form by individual county, as it is in Bexar County, or by a three county regional approach, will be fully established, and it will provide a forum for regional discussions related to numerous watershed related issues, including the implementation of the recommendations being developed in SARA’s watershed master plans.
Recreational opportunities continued to blossom in 2011 with the opening of the Branch River Park in Goliad. More recreational opportunities were added to the area in 2012 with the opening of the initial phase of the Helton San Antonio River Nature Park in Wilson County and the Saspamco Paddling Trail running from southern Bexar County into Wilson County. In 2012, SARA also began planning for a new linear creek trail system in Kenedy running along the Escondido Creek.
SARA will continue to be a leader in promoting sustainability throughout our District. Some of the sustainability projects to be conducted by SARA beginning in 2012 and proceeding into future years include: a stormwater audit of SARA’s facilities; two sustainable projects – a rain garden and an erosion control project – at SARA’s Environmental Center, a stormwater improvement project at SARA’s main office and the development of a new maintenance facility to be constructed in support of the Mission Reach Project all using best management practices (BMPs) and will serve as demonstration projects for the community; development of a triple bottom line tool that will assist in the decision-making process to determine the best sustainable capital improvement projects to implement; the offering of sustainability training for both in-house and external audiences; and the creation of a Low Impact Development (LID) Competition to promote this type of development throughout the larger San Antonio community.
SARA’s core values of stewardship, integrity and excellence permeates all our decisions. Our governmental and community partners value SARA’s opinion on issues because we strive to make decisions based on the best available information or data. Science, be it environmentally-based or engineering, is the foundation of service that SARA provides the community, and that will continue on into the future. Conducting water quality monitoring, laboratory and field activities and environmental investigations will all continue. Developing and maintaining holistic watershed master plans, completing and implementing the Flood Alert system and continuing SARA’s partnership with FEMA will be a significant part of SARA’s future. Providing award winning service at our wastewater treatment plants will continue, as well as providing wastewater assistance to the smaller communities throughout our District. Growing nature-based recreational opportunities will also continue to be a focus for SARA. Of course, completing the San Antonio River Improvements Project in 2013, finishing the tree plantings along the Mission Reach by 2015 and continuing to maintain the Museum Reach, Eagleland and Mission Reach segments of the San Antonio River Walk will be an ongoing priority for SARA. Moving the Westside Creeks project forward from vision, through planning and into construction will be a SARA focus for years to come.
This is just a snap shot of where SARA is today and the direction SARA is moving towards. SARA staff is passionately committed to the preservation, protection and sustainability of the San Antonio River Watershed. We are accountable to the Board of Directors, citizens, stakeholders and partners of the communities we serve. SARA will continue to base decisions on prudent financial management and sound scientific/engineering principles and practices, and we remain committed to taking collaborative, adaptive and strategic actions that address watershed issues and priorities. It has been a pleasure to serve the citizens of Bexar, Wilson, Karnes and Goliad Counties for the past 75 years, and we look forward to providing great and responsible service for years to come.