Amid a torrential downburst that spawned substantial flooding in early July 2002, the ubiquitous cameras caught yet another pickup. This time, the truck was high and dry, but stranded nonetheless on the far side of a stream whose rampaging force had ripped away a bridge. Its destruction left a neighborhood isolated, and in a plea for help one resident had taped a sign to his windshield: "Send Bridge."
These snapshots of the Great Floods of 1998 and 2002 speak volumes about our enduring desire for unfettered mobility, our overweening ambition to transcend nature, and our unabashed faith in technological prowess. Yet with every storm, nature undercuts our hubris, flattens our ambitions, and sweeps aside the human impress on south Texas.
We should have learned that lesson by now, but our flood management strategies bespeak an unshakable desire for mastery over the elements, as does our haste to rebuild every damaged bridge, repave each pockmarked highway, and construct more flood-control channels and dams. But no matter how many millions of dollars we invest in the creation of what we hope will prove a more durable flood-prevention infrastructure - currently there are an estimated $1 billion of proposed projects - we still will not elevate ourselves much above the cab of a inundated pickup.
The good folks living in the Woodlawn Lake neighborhood will attest to that. The lake around which their neighborhood was built was originally constructed as a flood-retention pond for Alazan Creek; in recent years, the lake has been dredged, and the tributaries' banks have been deepened and widened to carry a greater volume. All that effort proved for naught on July 1, 2002. That night, as many area residents sat down to dinner, the skies opened, and more than nine inches of rain fell in less than two hours. A feeder into Alazan Creek exploded from its banks and streamed onto Kampmann Avenue, which collected the swift-moving water and carried it south. Its force began to move cars parked down the winding street, and as the wet wall rose, and spilled into yards and gardens, it increased in height and energy. By 7 p.m. residents were reporting water had seeped inside their homes, and at its peak, flood waters stood waist-deep, damaging hundreds of abodes. Afterward, the streets were filled with debris: tables, mattresses, even a fish. As a discouraged Paolo Christadoro told the Express-News: "I grew up in this neighborhood, and thought we couldn't flood because we're on high ground."
Yet there is precious little upland in a flood basin, and that's what San Antonio is. Due to our geography, geology, and climate, we live within a unique landscape defined by the overlapping boundaries of several environmental and physical zones. Tucked under the Hill Country, whose southern, downward edge is known as the Balcones Escarpment, San Antonio sprawls across the transition between the Great Plains and the Gulf Coastal Plain. It is also positioned within an important climatic variable, the shift from the humid east and the arid west. That gives us front-row seats from which to watch as overhead, cold-weather fronts collide with subtropical Gulf air masses, and produce astonishingly violent storms. When the rains slant down and strike the rock-hard hills, the run-off races through cuts in the limestone escarpment, and sweeps into San Antonio (and New Braunfels, San Marcos, and Austin). We're not called Flash-Flood Alley for nothing.
Early Spanish settlers, many of whom walked barefoot along dirt paths, had a sharper appreciation than we do for the region's environmental rigors and constraints. They had to plant their crops close to rivers and streams to reduce the energy expended irrigating fields and hauling water for consumption. For the same reason, they sited San Fernando Cathedral between the San Antonio River and San Pedro Creek - to be at the hub of the fledgling town required being close to streamflow.
These calculations also spelled disaster: In 1819, a historic flood crashed down the river and creek, tore through the largely adobe village, and destroyed lives and property. Yet given the environmental context in which they lived, there was little the citizenry could do but rebuild within the perilous landscape.
San Antonians would not think otherwise until 1865, when after yet another damaging deluge they met to discuss the prospect of building a dam across the Olmos Creek basin. They balked at its expense, however, gambling that their short-term savings would not reap devastating, long-term consequences.
They were wrong. Floods continued to scour the city and drown its inhabitants. Finally, in the wake of a devastating 1921 flood in which more than 50 people perished, the community built the Olmos Dam, which since has protected its central core. Yet not until the 1970s would the political elite extend similar protections to the poor, low-lying, and flood-prone neighborhoods on the West and South sides. As if to make up for lost ground, San Antonio has since used federal, state, and local funds to build a complex of retention dams, concrete channels, and high-tech tunnels to capture and control runoff.
Yet still we go underwater. Despite this enduring evidence of nature's power, the city and county have proposed what seems a last-ditch effort to gain the upper hand through a so-called regional flood-management plan. Released this summer, the preliminary outline assumes that an ever-more heavily engineered watershed will somehow resolve human expectations and needs with the vagaries and force of nature. For example, City officials plan to upgrade the Woodlawn Lake area with a bond issue in 2003 (although several residents have complained the plans are still sketchy), yet City zoning still allows expansive parking lots to be built, and the proposed PGA Village has upped its percentage of impervious cover from 15 to 25 percent - which scientific studies have shown can increase runoff and contamination.
Illusory, too, is its definition of our region as framed by artificial political boundaries. No river system respects county lines, and to think and act otherwise is dangerous, as the widespread damage from the 1998 and 2002 floods have amply demonstrated. Until we learn to live within the environmental realities peculiar to south Texas, we will be left like that driver stranded atop his submerged pickup, shaking our fists at our fate.
Char Miller is chair of the history department at Trinity University, editor of On the Border: An Environmental History of San Antonio, and author of Gifford Pinchot and the Making of Modern Environmentalism, which recently won the National Outdoor Book Contest Award for History and Biography.
EVERY DROP OF WATER
Saturday, November 8, 8:30am-3:30pm
Witte Museum, 3801 Broadway, Info: 357-1860
Vic Baker, professor of hydrology at the University of Arizona
Monday, November 11, 7:30pm
Laurie Auditorium, Trinity University
DROUGHT PUNCTUATED BY FLOOD: WATER IN SOUTH CENTRAL TEXAS
Thursday, November 21, 9am-5:30pm
Texas Lutheran University, 1000 W. Court St., Seguin
Free, but people are required to register: 830-372-8020, firstname.lastname@example.org
For a full schedule of topics, go to: www.tlu.edu