Understanding Access

Tali MacArthur, Program Manager
Tali MacArthur, Program Manager

From Monday, February 27 though Thursday March 2, I was lucky enough to escape the (admittedly mild) winter temperatures of central Pennsylvania and head down to sunny and 80-degree-warm San Antonio, TX for my first ever River Management Symposium hosted by the River Management Society. The theme of this year’s symposium was Reimagine River Access, and the river managers, advocates, stewards, academics, and students who attended did just that. The week included presentations, plenaries, networking, and conversations on topics such as river access planning and design, pathways to meaningful inclusion, managing busy river accesses, partnerships to expand public access, the impact of climate change on Wild and Scenic Rivers, funding strategies for river access, and more. With so many sessions on the agenda, it was impossible to attend them all; it would also be impossible to convey all that I heard, learned, and was inspired by. I will, however, share a few highlights.

The opening plenary set the tone for the entire event as it was informative, inspiring, and aspirational. Attendees were treated to a fascinating history lesson from Christine Jacobs, Superintendent of the San Antonio Missions National Historic Park about the natural and cultural significance of the Missions of San Antonio and role water played in their creation and their sustained existence. The Missions were not only religious centers, but also centers of life, learning, agriculture, and community. Among the key features of the Missions were their acequias: marvels of engineering that diverted and distributed water for miles from the local spring-fed rivers to the mission communities. They were, in a sense, the lifeblood of the missions, providing water for all of their needs. The National Park Service strives, still today, to protect, manage, restore, and maintain many miles of acequias as well as many elements of these Spanish frontier Missions to help preserve and share this rich history with thousands of annual visitors.

For such a seemingly simple word, “access” engendered a rich and complex discussion.

The plenary also featured Carmen Tafolla, 2015 State Poet Laureate of Texas, who read an original poem conveying the power of rivers: to weave together families, to remind us of our cultural connection to the land, to make us happy, to help us fall in love, to rekindle memories, and to remind us that we must care for our rivers who, in turn, give so much to us. Finally, we heard about the role that urban rivers play in the history, tourism industry, and economy of nearby New Braunfels, TX and the role that the local tourism and visitors bureau plays in conveying recreation opportunities, sharing safety messaging, and aligning outfitters with river managers and river users to ensure fun, accessible, sustainable, and safe outdoor river-based activities. (A note to anyone who might be thinking about checking out the famed “tube chute” one weekend this summer: you may have to share the experience with 18,000 new friends who also visit the city and river on a typical Saturday in July. Yes, you read that right, 18,000!)

As the symposium theme denotes, “access” was considered, defined, explored, argued, and encouraged throughout the symposium. For such a seemingly simple word, it engendered a rich and complex discussion:

  • Access is a point of entry; a physical engineered structure. 
  • Access is a phase (or two) of the overall river paddling experience: it is the experience of getting into and out of the water.
  • Access is a multidimensional construct: the idea of having something or not having it, of whether it is something inclusive or exclusive, of whether it is something that allows you to then have or possess other desirable things.
Guadalupe River near New Braunfels, TX
Guadalupe River near New Braunfels, TX

Access to a water trail could mean wading into the water, paddling on the water, or just being near the calming effects of moving water that offer respite and relaxation. As river and recreation managers, we must consider all of these notions, challenges, and opportunities. We must name and recognize the barriers to access in all its many forms and iterations. We must plan and design for inclusive, sustainable and long-lasting access despite the complexities of dynamic river systems, a changing climate, and an explosion of interest and desire to explore river- and land-trail systems and nearby parks. We must define and manage river access over-use and develop fair and equitable policies that allow for appreciation and recreation “for all” while also protecting the integrity of the ecosystems and the nearby local communities who may experience burdensome impacts of visitation and use as well as the benefits of increased awareness, stewardship, and economic development, respectively.

Solutions, tools, and resources to address some of these challenges and opportunities were shared: Guidance documents, databases, maps and signage best practices, and user management toolboxes, to virtual river tours and “Lego vignettes” (created with wonderfully childlike imagination by creative National Park Service staff). There are many sources of expertise and ideas that can help Pennsylvania’s Water Trail Partners and Water Trail Managers advance our efforts to enhance, protect, promote, and celebrate our water trails, and to ensure that residents and visitors can enjoy the many unique opportunities to explore, paddle, float, and visit the Commonwealth’s waterways.

Above and beyond these learning opportunities, the vibrant and welcoming city of San Antonio — with its iconic River Walk, world-famous barbecue and Tex-Mex cuisine, and yes, the occasional after-work margarita — was a wonderful setting in which to take in all that this symposium had to offer.