Say what?! SA has a giant river trash rake. KSAT Explains

Any trash that makes it into a storm drain finds its way into the San Antonio River

If it’s headed to a storm drain, it’s headed for the river.

That’s a fact about trash in San Antonio.

“Ultimately, it all ends up in the San Antonio River,” said Tommy Mitchell, Watershed and Park Operations Manager for the San Antonio River Authority.

Click here to learn about volunteer clean up with San Antonio River Authority

Jane Bockus volunteers to pick up trash out of the San Antonio River five or six times a year.

“Every time it rains, I see so much trash in the river,” Bockus said while at a clean-up event along the Mission Reach near Mission Espada.

“Today, we got a baby seat, a car seat. There are four couch cushions down there that are too heavy to pull out,” she said. “Tons of Styrofoam. Tons of plastic bags and bottles that people just throw away. Not realizing no matter where they throw it, gravity and wind will take it into the river. "

The biggest mess often happens when it’s been a while since it rained.

“Maybe we haven’t had rain in a month. That first one inch of rain is kind of what we refer to as ‘the first flush.’ And that’s where you’ll see a lot of those trash, and flow will start to migrate,” Mitchell said.

South Texas is also prone to flash flooding, which causes trash to flow and accumulate even faster when water rises rapidly.

“Normally we’re seeing about 10 or 15 CFS (cubic feet per second) in the San Antonio River on any normal given day. And we’ll see that rise very rapidly up to 2,000 CFS,” Mitchell added.

The Trash Rake

San Antonio has a system for catching trash along the water.

But it’s not a license to litter.

It’s in place because, unfortunately, some people do.

Click here to learn about the city’s Adopt-A-Spot Program

A giant mechanical trash rake is located along the river just north of downtown near The Pearl.

It operates on a timer that schedules the rake to run multiple times a day to pull trash out of the river.

There are also sensors that trigger the rake to run when river levels rise.

“The water elevates, it activates the sensor, it turns on the trash rig automatically and it picks up all the debris and it puts it on top of the platform,” said City Public Works Operations Manager Jose Salazar.

The rake pulls trash from the water and dumps it onto a concrete platform using giant mechanical teeth.

We saw it catch something as small as an applesauce container.

After a heavy rain, Salazar said the platform will be filled with trash.

But the rake doesn’t catch everything.

Plus, it only has a chance to catch trash that started upstream and didn’t get stuck somewhere else before it flows that far south.

Any trash that gets into the river south of the rake flows freely.

Clean up along smaller creeks and waterways that flow through other municipalities and eventually connect to the San Antonio are the responsibility of those cities to maintain.

Did you know about the tunnel?

The trash rake is located at the inlet of a giant tunnel designed to prevent flooding downtown.

The tunnel funnels water underground and stretches 150 feet below the surface and 25 feet in radius.

“Then it travels three miles underground,” Salazar said. “And this protects the whole downtown area from flooding. And it exits at Lonestar Boulevard.”

The rake combs the water for trash and debris before it enters the tunnel.

Water quality and a PR problem

You know trash in the water looks nasty, but how does it affect water quality?

“Things like bacteria or nutrients. When I say nutrients, things like fertilizer, that could then lead to water quality concerns for plants along the river or animals in the river,” said San Antonio River Authority Environmental Sciences Manager Shaun Donovan.

“We see examples, unfortunately, of decreased water quality after every storm event. We’re in a very urban river system, so obviously the River Walk goes right through the heart of downtown, the river just south of downtown where we are now,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of impervious surfaces. So streets and sidewalks and roofs where water can’t soak in water just runs off. And, so anything that’s on top of those surfaces come straight into the river.”

The San Antonio River Authority tests water quality at 70 to 80 sites every other month.

There are eight spots from which SARA tests samples weekly for bacteria. Those are in places where people might kayak or canoe.

None of the local drinking water comes from the San Antonio River.

Litter in the river creates another mess that’s often harder to clean up: a public relations problem.

“One of the biggest impacts of trash on the water is the perception,” Donovan said. “The perception that people see with trash is ‘that must be a bad water body, that must be unhealthy, it must be dangerous.’ And it’s just not true.

“There’s extremely healthy fish populations. We’re doing the first-of-its-kind mussel reintroduction in the state of Texas. We have great water quality. All of that is because of this healthy ecosystem,” Donovan said.

It’s up to all of us to do our part to keep it that way.

“Just know that we are all connected in some way and primarily through our watershed,” Mitchell said.

About the Authors

Myra Arthur is passionate about San Antonio and sharing its stories. She graduated high school in the Alamo City and always wanted to anchor and report in her hometown. Myra anchors KSAT News at 6:00 p.m. and hosts and reports for the streaming show, KSAT Explains. She joined KSAT in 2012 after anchoring and reporting in Waco and Corpus Christi.

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