An aerial view of San Antonio’s Confluence Park. (San Antonio River Foundation)

In early March, the city of San Antonio celebrated the opening of a new park. Named Confluence Park, it sits on about 3.5 acres (1.4 ha) where two major rivers meet. The park—a former construction storage yard—was ten years in the making, costing about $13 million.

By using 22 huge concrete petals to gather and move rainwater, the park represents the importance of management of water usage in this south Texas city. But the park is also a sign that San Antonio is shifting its development strategy from seeing its river areas as industrial zones and more as places to develop with open space, housing, and mixed uses.

“The South Side is rising again,” said Mayor Ron Nirenberg at the park opening. “The center of gravity of San Antonio is shifting ever so slightly southward.” Robert Amerman, executive director of the San Antonio River Foundation, which spearheaded the project, expressed a similar thought: “Confluence Park is here to tell the story of why this place matters. Why water and resource education matters. Why telling stories to our children matters.”

What is happening in San Antonio is happening in urban areas all over the United States. Water use and reclamation—and seeing water as an asset that spurs growth—and developers are moving to the central city because of that. In this case, an area just south of downtown that has lacked investment in recent years is now seeing an upside that few even saw ten years ago.

And what is the key to all this is that real estate developers are willing to work with the city to use water in their development more efficiently and make those investments to do so, as long as they know that the city’s water supply will be stable in the future and at a good price.

“We have come to the point where we don’t even think about saving water anymore, we just do it,” said David Adelman, the founder and principal of AREA Real Estate, one of the leading real estate developers in San Antonio. “What is interesting is even though we have an abundant water supply by most standards, we continue to lead the country in water use reduction.

“We have gone out and acquired other water resources to use, and we have set limits on that use,” Adelman continued. “Because there is a common theme here and everywhere. Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Among the big U.S. cities, San Antonio is known for a few things nationally: the famed River Walk, the perennial NBA champion Spurs, and the Alamo. Maybe even being a city where great Tejano music and fantastic comida mexicana are the norm.

But among urban planners and developers, San Antonio is also known for being close-to-the-best at something else. In the current century, when water is perceived to be as valuable as oil was in the 20th century—and cities around the globe are trying to find ways to sustain their access to and use of it at a reasonable cost—this seventh-largest U.S. city is indeed leading the way.

Confluence Park also connects by walking trails to San Antonio’s Riverwalk. (San Antonio River Foundation)

This water diversity trend for San Antonio, a city that has lived under the flags of six separate nations, has been at the city’s heart since its origin three centuries ago, and is not surprising to many who follow the ever-changing political issues and environmental technology improvements of water use management.

“There are areas of the country that are water-stressed, and areas that are water-rich,” said Rudolph Rosen, director of the Institute for Water Research Science and Technology at Texas A&M University–San Antonio. “San Antonio has always had to deal with both because here it is ‘drought, flood, repeat, drought, flood, repeat.’

“It sits upon an aquifer that is used for its water, and it can have abundant water or little, depending on whether they have had flooding or drought,” Rosen said. “What the city has done is to figure out how to handle both, by diversifying its water supply in ways that make the future more stable than most cities have in their future.”

One stat jumps out when one is looking at how San Antonio has changed and leads in how water is used. In 1982, water users in the city averaged 225 gallons per day; in 2016, the usage was 117 gallons per day. That works out to, on average, about 70 billion fewer gallons used per year and is one of the lowest per-capita water use rates for any big city in the country.

The reason San Antonio has become among the world’s leaders in water conservation comes from both its history and lawsuits. Over time, it came to see the importance of both.

The regional Native American and Spanish settlers saw the springs that formed the rivers in this part of south Texas as the primary reason to set up camps in that part of the country in the 1500s. This led to the area being a center of population and trade traffic through its history.

But that changed over time. The political and business leaders let the rivers turn into nothing much more than ditches for polluted refuse to be dumped. The multiple military bases located there in the 20th century did little to alleviate that attitude.

A federal lawsuit by environmentalists in the early 1990s forced the city to restrict their draw from the aquifer it sits on, forcing the city to become more sustainable in its water use. The courts ruled that San Antonio could not take all the aquifer water it wanted, and therefore had to figure out how to use less.

So, the change in how the city views water has had a big influence on its housing and business development. What the city is finding is that the linkage of historical monuments in the city with riverfront parks is having an economic impact on property values and a mind-set change in how those properties close to the river can be used.

“We are now seeing the riverfront properties in Antonio as places that can be built upon with new homes, or to rehabilitate older properties,” said Suzanne Scott, general manager of the San Antonio River Authority, the public/private partnership organization that oversees riverfront rehabilitation.

“What we have been able to see quite clearly is that the business leadership, the elected officials, and the general public are now seeing that water is a valuable commodity, both in terms of drinking and business use and living near,” Scott said. “Businesses are seeing their workers want to be near open spaces on the river, where they can spend time and relax and work out if they want. It wasn’t always that way.”

The San Antonio River starts in San Antonio with a spring. Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903), the landscape architect who laid out New York City’s Central Park, visited San Antonio in 1854 and wrote about the San Antonio River’s source a few miles north of the city’s downtown: “The whole river gushes up in one sparkling burst from the earth. . . . The effect is overpowering. It is beyond your possible conceptions of a spring.”

What was unique about San Antonio’s response to the court’s ruling that it had to change how it used water was that it did not pout and fight: it set out to change its entire water access policy, from reestablishing parkland on the rivers to setting up water rates that reward those who use less to delivering billions of gallons of recycled water through 100 miles (161 km) of designated pipes.

“What happened was the city stopped seeing the rivers as merely drainage ditches without much value,” said the San Antonio River Authority’s Scott. “What also has happened is that over time, the awareness has been heightened in this city about water value of our community, and we see good, sustainable water use and river property development as good investment on many levels.”

Confluence Park will be near the San Pedro Creek Improvements Projects, which is designed to change San Pedro Creek from a concrete-lined drainage ditch into a natural creek habitat and world-class linear park.

According to the project’s website, the goal is to “catalyze a $1.5 billion economic impact by creating 2,100 new housing units, 1,428 new downtown employees, 7,300 new downtown residents, 150 percent increase in new property value, and $227 million in ad valorem tax revenue.”

And these river improvement projects are making both upgraded housing and mixed-use retail/office projects catch fire in the San Antonio inner-city areas.

“Being on the river now is very important for many projects,” said Allen Sikes, design and construction manager at Silver Ventures, which is a part of the real estate development team at the former Pearl Brewery on the San Antonio River near downtown. “The river was mostly just a ditch when we first started on Pearl about ten years ago.

“People are getting smarter here in San Antonio,” Sikes continues. “Water is a key issue here now, and it is on the forefront of everyone’s mind. Very different groups have come together and compromised on how the water future looks, and it is being done in a sustainable way that a lot of cities are having trouble with.”

And what is happening is that San Antonio has gotten ahead of the curve in some ways, ahead of the curve that is becoming standard. According to the latest home price data, San Antonio had the third-highest gain of all Texas cities (up 5.6 percent to $217,800) in the fourth quarter of 2017, rising higher than both Houston and Austin.

“As cities increasingly require private developments to incorporate stormwater management mechanisms, green infrastructure is likely to become part of business as usual,” the Urban Land Institute’s Harvesting the Value of Water report states.

“Real estate projects that harness the opportunities presented by stormwater management systems will see the benefits, particularly in terms of the design of public and outdoor spaces and opportunities for operational and land use efficiencies.”

The way this is all happening in San Antonio is not just one group or another taking action, but a real cooperation between both the public sector and private sector. This includes both the river cleanup and the reduction of water usage per resident, as well as developers using water conservation infrastructure redevelopment in older properties.

“It’s incredibly important for us to deal with the health of our San Antonio River,” Mayor Nirenberg said at the city’s Water Forum last year. “The way we can do this is rather than accommodating ourselves to nature—[instead], work with the natural terrain to let nature do the work that it has already been doing for centuries, through low-impact development techniques, through building and developing a growing community in areas outside of the natural floodplain.”

This attitude is working on different levels. The public agency San Antonio Water System (SAWS), which operates the entire water acquisition and delivery for the locality, is planning for a 50 percent increase of 1 million more people countywide by 2040 (from 2 million to 3 million), and has added many more water sources besides the aquifer, which now provides just 60 percent of San Antonio’s water needs.

SAWS is using other aquifers, desalinating salty brackish water from some of those aquifers, and implementing an “aquifer storage and recovery” program. That program funnels water during big rains into the underground aquifer, creating what is an “underground reservoir.” This underground storage each year is capable of supplying the entire city with water for four months if everything else shuts down.

What this means is that the city is going to be far less dependent on the single Edwards Aquifer than it was 50 years ago. Projections by SAWS are that the aquifer will be less than 40 percent of its water source by 2050. The reason why that is important is that there will be far more people in that area in 2050: 4.3 million people live in the San Antonio and Austin metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) today, and that is expected to grow to 9.4 million by 2050 in this 160-mile (257 km) I-35 corridor.

Big businesses in San Antonio and Austin are adapting to changes in water use. One of these is Pearl, located on 26 acres (10.5 ha) adjacent to the San Antonio River north of downtown. The 750,000-square-foot (69,700 sq m), mixed-use, private development seeks to maintain the identity of the old historic brewery, which opened in 1883 and closed in 2001.

In 2017, Sikes said that Pearl used more than 14 million gallons of recycled water. That was partly due to the project plan to use six old beer tanks (each stores 7,600 gallons [28,800 liters] of water) on the property as cooling towers and as an irrigation source, along with providing water for fountains and other things. Some of that water comes from their own gathering of rainwater, but some comes via pipeline from the water system itself (recycled water is nicknamed “purple pipe” water in San Antonio, due to the recycled water’s pipe’s color).

Through design and implementation of better water use facilities (like low-flow toilets), Pearl has also figured out how to reduce the use of potable water by 76 percent. In a new ten-story office building scheduled for construction in the next few months, Pearl will use condensate water drippings from air-conditioning units to be recycled back into the building for flushing toilets. In addition, 100 percent of the roof will be able to collect rainwater and recycle it within the building.

“Businesses that move into the city these days—and any city in the country, really—want to have stability for the resources used to extend into the future as far as they can plan,” Sikes said. “Some businesses want sustainable water use more than others, but it is safe to say that number is getting larger.”

Silver Ventures is expanding in the south side of the city by buying about five acres (2 ha) from the San Antonio Independent School District. The price was about $14.5 million, and the property lies about two miles (3.2 km) from Confluence Park, and less than a half mile from the San Antonio River near downtown (similar to the distance between the river and Pearl).

“We have no immediate plans for this site and it could be years before anything is done,” said Bill Shown, Silver Ventures’ managing director of real estate, told the Rivard Report. “Until we talk to you, nothing’s happening. Just because there’s a void doesn’t mean there are any machinations behind it. We’ve spent 16 years [developing] the Pearl. We take a long time.”

San Antonio real estate developer Adelman agrees. His company developed the 1917 Hughes Warehouse property in San Antonio with solar panels on the insulated roof that meet about 50 percent of the building’s energy needs, a 34 percent drop in potable water used through various reductions, and an HVAC system that allows individual control of each conference room. But they took their time and did very careful planning.

“There is definitely a sect of the population who are now making their choices in both office and housing properties with the thought of how it fits in with their environmental consciousness,” Adelman says. “For many companies, what fits into their corporate culture is very important. [It] can even affect the talent pool they can hire.

“What happened in San Antonio was unique, because we had environmental and business issues that forced us all to the table,” he says. “No one on either side of the table got everything they wanted. But in doing it that way, we are now leading the nation in dealing with water issues. Now we have multiple water resources, a good public and private cooperation, and no issue to deal with.”

For additional information on how parks and open space can support stormwater management and environmental resilience, sign up for updates on the 10 Minute Walk Campaign or follow #10MinWalk. The 10-Minute Walk Campaign, a national movement led by the Urban Land Institute, The Trust for Public Land, and the National Recreation and Park Association, is promoting the bold idea that everyone living in urban America should live within a 10-minute walk of a park.