Tree removal along San Antonio River for flood control shocks some

While riding the Mission Reach Trail on his bike earlier this month, San Antonio glass artist Justin Parr was heartbroken to see dozens of trees along the path near Hot Wells had been freshly cleared and others were slaughtered before him.

Shocked by the change, Parr posted a video showing several of the downed trees, which quickly caught the attention of other local conservationists. Concerned, these advocates contacted the San Antonio River Authority to demand more information about what they considered excessive tree clearing.

The tree removal is actually part of a systematic update to help control floodwaters locally, said Steven Schauer, SARA’s external communications manager.

About 10 years ago, SARA, in conjunction with Bexar County and the City of San Antonio, planted approximately 22,000 trees along the banks of the river. The effort was part of the San Antonio River Improvement Project, a $384 million+ river redevelopment program initiated in 1998 that included the Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration and Recreation Project. This $271.4 million, 8-mile portion of the 13-mile project aimed to restore ecosystems around the river by rebuilding natural river features and planting native grasses, trees, and plant life near the edge of the river.

While these native plants provide food and habitat for many animal species that live on or near the San Antonio River, they are also believed to help stabilize the banks to help prevent erosion and filter waste from the waters. storms flowing into the river, according to SARA. project website page.

Over the past decade, Parr noted that many of the 22,000 trees planted had grown tall enough to provide shade on the paved path along Mission Reach, which is one of the reasons he was confused by tree removal.

“It looks like such a waste of our public money; millions of dollars have been spent planting trees and [installing] drip irrigation in 2012, only to spend more to have the trees cut down and ground into the ground now,” he said.

In response to concerns from Parr and others, SARA explained in a blog post that the trees were removed to conform to an updated floodplain model produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2017.

However, FEMA’s process for approving updated maps is long and slow, while the data was collected in 2017, the maps have only recently been accepted, said Kristen Hansen, manager of the operations department of the watersheds and river authority parks.

The tree removal, which began in October, aims to prevent flooding of the field by moving water through and away from the area rather than allowing the trees to encourage it to stay in the field, said Schuer. In order to meet new flood transportation requirements set by the US Army Corps of Engineers and FEMA, the trunks of many of these trees had to be removed, he explained.

“Over the past decade, more than 22,000 trees that we have planted [as part of the project] are doing well, but the project has also seen a significant volume of ‘volunteer trees’ starting to grow,” Schauer said. “These are trees that we didn’t plant – that’s why we call them volunteers, because they just showed up.”

While ecosystem restoration was an important part of the project, flood mitigation has always been a top priority to control the river, Schauer said, followed only by ecosystem restoration and then recreational needs.

While tree trunks were cut, many tree roots were left to continue to help prevent erosion, Hansen said. Although messages about the updated maps were released last year through traditional channels of authority, Hansen added that she was glad local environmental activists were asking where the trees went, because it means that they care about the project and all that the river authority is working to do.

Parr said that while he knew occasional tree mitigation would be needed and that the San Antonio River Authority was responsible for maintaining the grounds, he did not expect tree clearing to be so drastic.

Irby Hightower, former co-chairman of the San Antonio River Oversight Committee established in 1998 to oversee the planning, design, construction and financing needed to complete the river improvement project, echoed the thoughts of parr.

“When I saw what they were doing, I was shocked,” Hightower told the San Antonio Report. “It was more drastic than I would have thought necessary. Usually they do what they are supposed to do, which is to manage this project to ensure a diverse ecosystem, but I still was very surprised at the extent to which they were cutting [trees] down.”

San Antonio River Authority personnel are busy felling trees along the San Antonio River while researchers from UTSA and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department conduct field studies of local fish. Credit: Scott Ball/San Antonio Report

His surprise is to be expected, Schauer said; the project was designed with data collected in 2007-2008. Based on this data, only limited mitigation of invasive species would be needed, he said. However, new data collected in 2017 tells a different story.

“So unfortunately the maintenance and floodplain data weren’t fully aligned” at the time, Schauer said.

Hansen reiterated that the removal of some trees is very strategic, despite what some might believe, and noted that the river authority “leaves the majority of what exists today.”

“We only work in areas where FEMA tells us we must either remove all stems, or 10 stems, or 50 stems, or any number,” she said. Schauer added that the river authority has worked closely with an aviation specialist and other wildlife experts and plans to continue to do so as they work on the project in the coming months.

“We hope that over time people will understand why we did this work and come to appreciate it,” Schauer said.

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