There’s something amazing about 2,500 people of all ages and from every neighborhood in San Antonio who show up on a Saturday morning to clean up the trash.
Basura Bash, the city of San Antonio’s annual spring cleaning that began in 1994 with a handful of volunteers gathering at Mission County Park, this year, thousands of people crossed muddy creeks, the vast basin of Olmos and along 13 miles of the San Antonio River.
The waste collected by this all-volunteer army will ultimately be measured in tons and, in my own experience on Saturday, will include everything from discarded truck tires and other outsized items to face masks, toothpicks, pieces of foam plastic and countless cigarette butts. , proof that waste reflects the world we live in.
Yet, there is still much to do. One day is not enough, not when it takes endless hours to undo the damage caused by the thoughtless actions of others.
San Antonio has a terrible waste problem, as evidenced by the San Antonio River Authority report Don’t let litter pollute your river campaign launched last September. With limited staff and funds, the river authority alone cannot accomplish what should be a much more ambitious effort by city and county government.
The volunteers, some of whom I joined at the Olmos basin early Saturday morning, are generous and dedicated. But what if their valiant efforts supported 1,000 full-time workers hired by the city and county?
SA Ready to Work, the city’s new $180 million job training program, could direct funding toward an ongoing citywide cleanup. Bexar County, with $389 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, could match the effort. For $50 million, the city and county could create 1,000 new jobs by paying $18 an hour plus benefits.
The result would be transformative. Citizens could see something they’ve never seen: a clean, green, litter-free San Antonio. Education and marketing could focus on people adopting a no-waste mentality, which exists in many cities around the world. The effort would generate the kind of headlines the city covets. And many who are currently unemployed or underemployed would be back in the economy, supporting their families.
Local government efforts to address San Antonio’s waste problem have grown and mostly waned. The city council established the Keep San Antonio Clean Community Commission in 1980, joining the Keep America Beautiful program. A year later, Bexar County joined, but in 2011 Keep San Antonio Beautiful (KSAB) was no longer affiliated with the local government and is only now recovering from the embezzlement of a former member Staff.
“We’re small, but we’re passionate about the beauty of our city,” said Maggie Hernandez, environmental project manager at HEB and chairman of the board of KSAB, whose group helped clean up Zarzamora Creek in Leon Valley. Saturday.
For now, the city and county’s public works and parks and recreation departments rely on the goodwill of volunteers.
“It’s exhausting, year after year,” said Tate Coker, an engineer at Daytime Jacobs and captain of the 40-person Olmos Creek cleanup crew that Monika Maeckle, my wife and I joined on Saturday. Coker entered the role to replace her predecessor. Given the magnitude of the waste problem, the work can be overwhelming.
We arrived early and found the parking lot at Olmos Basin Park empty except for many beer cans, bottles and tamale pods left behind by late night revelers. Nearby trash cans and bins were empty. Before starting the creek cleanup, we monitored the parking lot so the volunteers had places to park.
HEB and other sponsors provided breakfast tacos, apples, bottled water and plenty of heavy duty garbage bags.
Roberto Anguiano Sr., one of San Antonio’s true unsung heroes, conceived the idea for Basura Bash shortly after founding the San Jose Neighborhood Association. An Air Force veteran and water engineer whose career included long stints at SARA, the City of San Antonio and SAWS, Anguiano died in 2017.
Anguiano partnered with Linda Bradshaw, a real estate agent who lived in the historic King William neighborhood. The two recruited students and other community volunteers each spring to clean up Mission Reach from the San Antonio River south of downtown. Bradshaw then left San Antonio and could not be located.
“From the very beginning, everything was driven by volunteers,” said Sonia Jimenez, executive at Ximenes & Associates and current president of Basura Bash. “At the time, we had up to 800 volunteers. Today it’s 2,500 and I don’t know how many miles of rivers and streams we’re cleaning up, but it’s over 20 sites around the city. Each has its own captain and crew, a system that grew organically without any recruiting efforts.
Click here to see the sites cleaned on Saturday.
The newly formed River Aid San Antonio, with roots on the city’s East Side, has injected new energy into the volunteer cleanup campaign.
“There were eight of us, all connected through Gardopia Gardens on the east side, and COVID had hit and we decided we had to do something. So our first cleanses were in February and March and on Earth Day in 2021,” said Charles Blank, the group’s founder.
The small group of volunteers, sometimes numbering up to 50, visit three Sundays a month, focusing their efforts on the Olmos basin, which looks cleaner than it has in years.
“We are looking to grow. Basura Bash must be more than half a day of effort once a year,” Blank said the day before he and others helped clean Salado Creek. “Doing a quarterly Basura Bash is absolutely on my schedule. If we can establish River Aid chapters on college campuses, we can recruit young people who know the town has a problem and want to do something about it.
“We need to develop a timeline to resolve this issue or at least mitigate it.”
River Aid collected 38,000 pounds of waste in 2021. Basura Bash will announce its collection total in the coming weeks.
The city and county should build on the river authority’s year-long campaign by designing and funding a more comprehensive anti-litter program. Elected officials will find that there is no shortage of volunteers in San Antonio willing to help.