River Aid San Antonio Creates Connections on Cleaner Waterways

As a child, I was fascinated by ants. Much to my mother’s chagrin, I left crumbs on the kitchen floor and watched the insects navigate the expanse of linoleum, leaving behind a chemical trail for their sisters. I loved how they selflessly worked together to bring crumbs much bigger than themselves back to the colony.

I hadn’t given it much thought until earlier this year, when I participated in a volunteer trash cleanup organized by River Aid San Antonio, a grassroots group focused on cleaning up trash-lined urban creeks and rivers. from San Antonio. I was standing on the banks of Salado Creek pulling plastic wraps from a tangle of branches when Josh Sarkardehi, one of the group’s field captains, called me to help lift a length of pipe d plastic water that had spilled into the stream.

The pipe was about 20 feet long, one foot in diameter, and must have weighed at least 700 pounds. But when a dozen of us wrapped our arms and lengths of strap around the pipe and lifted it, it started to heave. Using our collective strength, we hoisted it up a steep hill to a parking lot, where the city crews could take it away.

We had become ants, and it was great.

River Aid board members John Hamilton and Brendan Gibbons pull a soggy mattress from a stream near Winston Churchill Secondary School. Credit: Courtesy/Brendan Gibbons

Over the past two weeks, with horrible news driving me off my social media, I have often felt like an ant – tiny, insignificant, helpless. However, I feel more at peace when I act like an ant, bonding with my colleagues to accomplish something bigger than myself.

That’s why I joined the board of directors of River Aid, which earlier this year obtained its official nonprofit designation from the IRS. This month, I wanted to take a break from trail runner post to let you know what we’ve been up to – and invite readers to join us in our mission to make parts of our waterways clean enough to swim in again.

All the groups have an origin story, and River Aid begins with Gardopia, the Eastside gardening nonprofit run by Stephen Lucke that has become a hub of environmental activity in the city’s urban core. A group of Gardopia volunteers and staff, all in their 20s and 30s, began discussing finding a long-term solution to the city’s endemic waste problem. They embarked on organizing clean-up events almost every weekend, attracting hundreds of volunteers through their relentless Facebook Instagram posts. I followed the posts for a few weeks before deciding that I couldn’t miss the chance to get involved in a movement like this.

One of the first places I met the team was at Olmos Basin Park, the watershed choke point that drains much of north central San Antonio. Even after light rains, trash accumulates in the park behind the Olmos Dam, built in the 1920s to protect the city center from flooding.

My first visit to Olmos Basin was in 2016, when Lissa Martinez, a local conservationist and master naturalist from Texas, agreed to let me accompany her on one of her regular visits. Martinez serves as the park’s unofficial volunteer steward, organizing clean-up events and regularly taking water samples from the segment of Olmos Creek that runs through the park.

Each time the creek is flooded, a wave of plastic, aluminum, polystyrene and glass rushes in. During our encounter, Martinez peeled back the layers of trash and organic debris, revealing plastic bags stuck to the leaves and thin leafy sticks, like some kind of cursed Baklava.

I came away from that meeting feeling that no one could ever master this problem. That San Antonio is doomed to live with public land littered with trash, and I might as well get used to it.

At the time, San Antonio’s only major annual cleanup event, Basura Bash, was the only occasion volunteers could make significant progress in reducing the trash load in the park. Each February, hundreds of people descended on the site, one of dozens of cleaning points in the city. They were packing up and removing thousands of pounds of trash – only to see a new wave washed away after the next rain.

That was before River Aid, of course. Since we are in the basin of Olmos, the park has become visibly less cluttered with waste than it has been for several years.

During my first Olmos Basin cleanup, I met Charlie Blank, the group manager and driving force behind River Aid. Blank grew up in San Antonio and New York, and his personality blends Texas friendliness with East Coast efficiency. You’ll often see him on the River Aid Instagram feed, wading through creek beds and highlighting the city’s worst illegal dumps.

Blank’s particular talent is recruiting. Over months of cleanups, the group snowballed to include people of all ages, backgrounds, and political perspectives. The other three members of the group’s board of directors are Athena Santos, a longtime San Antonio resident and veterans professional who never fails to be the adult in the room; John Hamilton, an environmental analyst from CPS Energy who is earning his master’s degree in water management; and Seth Stephens, a financial advisor from Charlottesville, Va., who brings extensive grantmaking and financial metrics experience.

We’re all quite different, but when we work side by side on a muddy slope cleaning up abandoned shingles from a contractor’s landfill site, we find that we don’t talk about what divides us. Instead, we focus on getting the job done.

Not that the job is easy. During these cleanings, I learned how a carton of milk, baked for months in the sun, becomes so brittle that it breaks at the slightest touch. I learned that a waterlogged spring mattress is much easier to grab and pull than a crumbling foam mattress. I stood on my tiptoes to pick up ribbony strands of shredded plastic bags wrapped in the upper branches of the trees by the creek. I learned that used needles should be disposed of in a discarded water bottle so they don’t get into the garbage bag and sting our volunteers.

River Aid volunteers observe a pile of rubbish near a north side storm drain.
River Aid volunteers observe a pile of rubbish near a north side storm drain. Credit: Courtesy/Brendan Gibbons

With the help of logistics and garbage transportation from the city of San Antonio, we have accomplished a lot in one year. From March 2021 to March 2022, we held 46 cleanup events at 14 different sites, attracting over 600 volunteers in total. We weigh our trash trophies with each cleaning, and our first year tally came to almost 67,000 pounds. That’s more than the weight of three (empty) school buses.

Yet local waste statistics indicate that our transportation barely makes a dent in the problem. According to the city’s annual stormwater reports, city employees removed between 3.1 million and 278 million pounds of trash per year from 2012 to 2021.

As appalling as it may be to see the amount of rubbish covering the city, we believe that every day residents need to take ownership of the problem rather than leaving it to local government alone.

We also know that endless trash cleanups can leave people exhausted, so we provide other ways to connect our volunteers with existing opportunities. In May we brought River Aid volunteers to Headwaters at Incarnate Word Sanctuary to help clear invasive trees from the reserve. We will work with the City of San Antonio on similar efforts in city parks.

In June, we collected our first water samples from Salado Creek as part of our participation in the statewide Texas Stream Team citizen science initiative. We are identifying new sites to test along Salado Creek and the San Antonio River and are looking for volunteers to train and start monitoring their backyard streams.

We are still only at the beginning of our journey. If we’re going to make San Antonio’s waterways safe for swimming again, we’ll have to tackle more complicated pollutants than garbage. According to local watershed experts and state data, bacterial pollution is the number one reason for the degradation of our streams and rivers. This comes from a variety of sources – sewage spills, runoff from paved surfaces, pet waste, feral hogs and wildlife. Reducing bacterial load will mean rethinking how our city develops and uses land.

I want to believe in the power of individuals to make things change. This belief is why I became a journalist and, more recently, someone who lobbies for environmental quality as a full-time job. Lately, I’ve had a hard time maintaining that optimism. Like the waste that sweeps over our city, the dysfunctions of society continue to accumulate. Sometimes it feels like every effort to improve our world is wasted.

But then I remember another thing that I’ve always loved about ants: they’re never alone. Each individual has a job to do. Whether we succeed or fail, we do it together, and that in itself brings satisfaction.

Want to join us ? Email us at [email protected] or follow River Aid San Antonio on Instagram or Facebook. Everyone is welcome.

Garland K. Long