Last Updated on January 30, 2024
The “My River POV” series provides readers the opportunity to learn about the unique insight and experiences of the San Antonio River Authority (River Authority) staff and their personal connection to the San Antonio River in hopes of inspiring stewardship of area creeks and rivers.
Tommy Mitchell, Watershed and Park Operations Manager
How does your team help to keep the river safe, clean, and enjoyable?
My team helps to operate and maintain the 41 retention dams in Bexar and Karnes counties, the Mission and Museum Reaches of the San Antonio River Walk, and San Pedro Creek Culture Park. We also maintain many nature-based parks and paddling trails throughout the River Authority’s four-county jurisdiction. Many people may not know that our team also periodically flies stretches of the San Antonio River in a helicopter to look for log jams and debris along it and its main tributaries.
Watershed and Parks Operations (WPO) crews work to remove silt from San Pedro Creek Culture Park.
WPO crews help to maintain area dams.
It’s rewarding to see how the San Antonio River Basin has changed and evolved since I’ve worked here. As the River Authority has grown, so has my team – now 73 members strong. Throughout my career, I have seen the deep commitment of River Authority staff to constituents. It was impressed on me by supervisors in my early years at the agency, and it is something that has stuck with me throughout the years. My team strives to help constituents, offer services, and improve our response time to the community’s needs.
Let’s talk about dams. Why is it so essential to maintain them?
The Stone Oak Dam viewed from above with the trails of Stone Oak Park on the right-hand side. Many dams are hiding in plain sight!
Many people don’t realize retention dams exist in their backyards. Olmos Dam is probably the main dam that folks think of. However, it may come as a surprise that a majority of River Authority dams have more flood protection and capacity than the Olmos Dam. Most of these dams are located near Stone Oak in the Salado Creek Watershed. You may drive by on 1604 and look straight at them but not recognize them as dams because they don’t have the typical concrete construction we see in many iconic dams. Another example of a dam hidden in plain sight is at McAllister Park. Many folks use this dam for recreation, riding their bikes and running on the trails. They don’t realize it’s actively functioning to keep people and property safe in case of flooding.
How did you come to work for the River authority?
My family has been in South Texas for generations, and I had grandparents that lived in San Antonio along Sixmile Creek, a major tributary of the San Antonio River. When I was a small child, my family would visit, and we would go fishing on the lower segments of the San Antonio River near Mission Espada. We would also travel to the Frio River to swim, which is still a place my family goes to for annual trips each year. So, I was interested in being outside and enjoying the local waterways early on. I started work at the River Authority in February of 1994 after finding out about it through a friend. I’ve now been with the agency for almost 30 years. I started as an Entry Level Technician working on the San Antonio River. Over time, I was able to migrate from that position to the position I am in today.
Why do you enjoy working for the River Authority?
When I started at the River Authority, my everyday motivation was getting to work outside and along the river, helping to enhance and protect it. Over the years, though, the reasons I enjoy working for the River Authority have changed. It has been gratifying to see the positive impact that different projects we’ve completed with our partners, like the Mission Reach Ecosystem Restoration Project and Escondido Creek Parkway, have had on the surrounding communities. It’s meaningful to say that I was part of the teams bringing these projects to fruition.
The splash pad at Escondido Creek Parkway provides lots of summer fun for families!
Now that I’m in a supervisory role, my main focus is on supporting my team. I do my best to assist my team and support them in succeeding and working through anything hindering their ability to perform at their highest level. I genuinely feel I have the full support of my team, and they are my primary motivation. Whether offering resources, tools, or training opportunities – I want to be there to support the professional goals of each individual staff member on my team.
How have you seen people’s perceptions of the San Antonio River change?
The Mission Reach of the San Antonio River Walk.
We’re starting to see a much deeper appreciation of the river. The river used to be perceived as more of an afterthought. When I first started at the River Authority, we would see lots of illegal dumping. Now, everyone wants the San Antonio River at their front door; they want the view and the connection with the environment. It’s a big transition from when I started working here. The community has really embraced upgrades to the areas around the river. We’re seeing more and more people who live along the Mission Reach put up gazebos to sit outdoors, have a barbecue, and enjoy the river view. I think we’ll continue to see this appreciation grow, especially as the Westside Creeks Restoration Project gets underway.
How can we preserve the river for future generations?
A significant component of what my team does is balancing the needs of maintaining the parks, trails, and dams for flood control while accommodating recreation. We want folks to get out and interact with the ecology and wildlife surrounding the river. However, heavy foot and bike traffic can cause the degradation of the dams and riverside areas. For example, pedestrian traffic can cause vegetation to wear away. Then when it rains, the water will follow these side trails, causing erosion and compromising the integrity and safety of the flood control capabilities.
The trails of Mud Creek Park wind around Mud Creek Dam in Northern Bexar County. Stay on the trails to help protect dams!
As our urban areas become more developed and more people head to their local creeks and the San Antonio River, it is critical to be mindful of our collective footprint. For the everyday person recreating in the San Antonio River Basin, staying on the trails and disposing of trash properly are the best ways to preserve our river for future generations.