Note to our blog readers: It is customary in our Board Insight series for the board members to answer a set of questions to provide the reader an opportunity to learn more about their elected representatives. Darrell T. Brownlow, Ph.D., was last featured in this blog series on September 28, 2021. In this special edition of the River Authority’s Board Insight Series, Dr. Brownlow is giving his thoughts about his time on the San Antonio River Authority Board of Directors and as the outgoing Chairman.
It is with immense gratitude and bittersweet emotion that I write my final blog entry for the San Antonio River Authority (River Authority). Two days ago, December 15, 2021, was not only my last day as the River Authority’s Board Chairman, but it was also my last day in service as a member of the River Authority’s Board of Directors. Following a long and thorough deliberation, I decided to resign from the board to pursue other professional opportunities related to my geological and environmental consulting firm.
It has been a pleasure to serve on the River Authority’s Board of Directors for the past decade and as the Chairman since 2018. It has been an exciting time to serve with my fellow board members. I look back with fond memories on the accomplishments of the River Authority, which is a stellar organization doing vital work throughout the San Antonio River Basin. Here’s a quick look at a few of the many significant milestones which occurred during my tenure on the board that I am particularly proud of.
- The John William Helton-San Antonio River Nature Park (Helton Nature Park) in Wilson County and the SASPAMCO Paddling Trail running from southern Bexar County into Wilson County, both fully opened in 2012. These are great recreational amenities in Wilson County. The paddling trail, which I’ve had the pleasure of kayaking many times, including with my daughter, has since expanded from its original length of about 12-miles to nearly 30-miles long with access points at River Crossing Park, Graytown Park on the San Antonio River, Helton Nature Park, County Road 117, and Floresville River Park.
The SASPAMCO Paddling Trail
- Also, in 2012, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) adopted instream and environmental flow standards associated with the Guadalupe, San Antonio, Mission, and Aransas River Basins and Mission, Copano, Aransas, and San Antonio Bays. This was a significant milestone for the health of the San Antonio River and San Antonio Bay, given the regional, stakeholder-driven, scientific-based process, which was chaired by the River Authority’s General Manager. It also provided final recommendations to the TCEQ that included several voluntary strategies to help meet seasonal targets for freshwater inflows to the bay and estuary.
- The Mission Reach section of the San Antonio River Walk was completed in 2013. The Mission Reach restoration is less than a decade old, but the habitat is already demonstrating that ecosystem restoration can work in an urban environment. This project has also provided the River Authority with numerous opportunities for proactive studies and additional ecological restoration, including the reintroduction of Guadalupe Bass, a three-year avian study that counted over 65,000 individual birds of over 200 different species using the restored habitat, and an innovative study to reintroduce four freshwater mussel species into the Mission Reach, making the San Antonio River the first waterbody in the state to have an assemblage of mussels reintroduced.
- The success of the Mission Reach also helped the San Antonio Missions gain World Heritage site status in 2015. The historical and cultural significance of the river and the Mission Reach ecosystem restoration were both mentioned in the material supporting the World Heritage nomination. The adopted UNESCO Statement of Outstanding Universal Value acknowledges the important role the San Antonio River played in the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Site recognition.
- The Theiss International Riverprize, presented by the International River Foundation, was awarded to the River Authority and the San Antonio River in 2017. The Riverprize is the world’s foremost award in river basin management. The prize rewards inspiring initiatives that demonstrate Integrated River Basin Management to restore and protect rivers, wetlands, lakes, and estuaries.
- The first phase of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park was opened on May 5, 2018, which was the city’s 300th birthday. The San Pedro Creek Culture Park celebrates the culture, history, and natural qualities of our community through a series of temporary and permanent artworks, artistic treatments, interpretative signage, performances, and interactive exhibits. The rest of the project is expected to be complete by 2023.
Fireworks celebrating the grand opening of the San Pedro Creek Culture Park
- During my time as Chairman, the board continued to prioritize funding for reducing flood risk and improving public safety throughout the basin by fast-tracking the completion of vital flood risk management projects. These projects will enhance community readiness and protection. One of these important projects was the development of predictive flood modeling technology. This equips first responders with an innovative tool to avoid loss of life and protect property during heavy rain and flood events. Other flood risk mitigation projects still advancing toward completion include the development of the most up-to-date and dynamic floodplain maps, flood risk products, and watershed master plans. This critical information will help individuals understand their level of flood risk, and it will be used to guide investments in capital projects and inform future development decisions.
- Difficult budget, policy, and operational decisions had to be made by the River Authority’s Board of Directors and staff beginning in early 2020 due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Despite the uncertainty brought about by this emerging disease, the important work of the River Authority continued unabated. In particular, I would like to recognize the unsung heroes from our Utilities Department for continuing uninterrupted wastewater treatment services and the staff of our Watershed & Park Operations who maintained our parks which were seeing increased visitation from those seeking respite due to the challenges of the pandemic. In 2020, we were also still able to open the new Escondido Creek Parkway in Karnes County and release the inaugural San Antonio River Basin Report Card – the 2021 basin report card was just recently released.
- One of the final acts I was able to participate in as Chairman was the launch of the River Authority’s new Don’t Let Litter Trash Your River initiative. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, City of San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio River Foundation Executive Director Frates Seeligson, and San Antonio Spurs player and Team USA gold medalist Keldon Johnson joined me on September 25, 2021, to kick off this new initiative designed to address the community-wide problem of trash and litter.
Chariman Brownlow delivers remarks at the media event for the launch of the Don't Let Litter Trash Your River Initiative.
There are many more accomplishments that occurred over the past decade, all of which I am incredibly proud to be associated with. Ultimately, the largest and most important responsibilities of the Board of Directors are to establish the annual budget and tax rate and, when necessary, hire the agency’s general manager. This is why I can say with certainty that the one decision I was deeply engaged with as Chairman is the action that may have the longest-lasting impact from my time on the board: the hiring of the new General Manager, Derek Boese. The River Authority is staffed from top to bottom with talented, dedicated, and consummate professionals who work daily to preserve and protect the San Antonio River Basin. As I said when the board unanimously voted to hire Derek, I’m confident that he will continue to build on the great foundation of engineering project management, scientific services, and environmental stewardship the River Authority has become known for.
I wish to thank my board colleagues for their support and friendship over the years. The new Chairman, Jim Campbell, will be a fantastic leader for the River Authority. Finally, I wish to thank each of you, the constituents of the River Authority. While I was elected to represent the residents of Wilson County, as Chairman I did my best to represent the interests of the entire San Antonio River Basin. I’m grateful to have served, and I hope to see you out at Helton Nature Park or on the SASPAMCO Paddling Trail. I will remain a faithful advocate of the River Authority and the residents of the basin.