US/ICOMOS Mourns the Passing of Sally Buchanan, Passionate Advocate for the World Heritage of Water

US/ICOMOS mourns the passing on July 30, 2016 of long time member Sara “Sally” Matthews Buchanan, 73, of San Antonio. A native of San Antonio, Buchanan held a B.A. in Art History from Mills College in Oakland, CA.   Her professional, civic and community interests and roles were numerous and included travel, architecture, entrepreneurship, classical music and more.  It may be, however, that Buchanan’s greatest professional passion could be found at the intersection of heritage, water and urbanization. Because of her interest in and knowledge about water, she was an elected Director of the San Antonio River Authority since 1999, and served as Secretary and most recently as President.
It is a testament to Sally that these issues of water and heritage – which she championed for decades – are today among the most timely and pressing of contemporary concerns.  Indeed, US/ICOMOS and partners just last month proposed a session at the upcoming UN Climate Change Summit (COP22) entitled  “The World Heritage of Water: Traditional Knowledge & Contemporary Applications in a Rapidly Changing Climate.”  The session concept note states:

These themes are relevant for modern policy makers, engineers, designers, planners and preservationists to understand since the lessons of the past can offer viable and sustainable solutions to today’s water access, stewardship, and infrastructure challenges. Ancient water engineers grappled with the same issues that modern water engineers do, e.g., providing abundant and reliable supplies of potable water, water security, water storage, agricultural irrigation, efficient urban distribution, water theft, hygiene, etc. The history of water and irrigation, the development of related technologies, and the sustainability of the old systems provides insight into the factors that have sustained successful outcomes over generations and have great potential for informing and aiding in the development of climate resilience and adaptation strategies.

 These are words Sally herself could have written. In an article about Sally prepared by the San Antonio River Foundation (on which she served), the author observed,
For years, Buchanan has had an interest the watercourses that criss-cross our city, the acequias. She loves to tell of their engineering which can be traced back to the Moors in North Africa and then brought to the New World by the Spanish. It is not uncommon for her to take friends on acequia tours to see where the dried irrigation ditches still exist, “like bones that stick up in the dry earth.” She is mesmerized with the fact that the Espada Acequia by the Mission of the same name has flowed since the Spanish colonial era, and is the only one within the 50 miles of acequias in the region to do so continuously. “I have been fascinated because our whole city was shaped by the river, its creeks and seven acequias,” comments Buchanan. It is her aim to make information about the historic watercourses accessible to the public and has long been attracted to the cultural tourism inherent with the heritage of San Antonio.

It is no surprise, then, that Buchanan was an early and enthusiastic supporter of the idea of World Heritage status for the San Antonio missions. Indeed, a core element of the Missions’ success was the construction of a complex and expansive irrigation system comprising dams, gates, and irrigation canals. Together, these systems, known as acequias, enabled the missions to thrive and determined settlement patterns. Their placement also influenced the development of other infrastructure such as historic roadways, which often followed their wandering paths, and affected the lifestyle of the community even to today. It is a blessing that Buchanan lived to see the Missions – and their acequias – inscribed on the World Heritage List in July, 2015.
As much as she could, Buchanan also loved to travel. She boated down the Yangtze River in China, hiked on 14,000ft peaks in the Himalayas and bused from Istanbul to Kathmandu when the shahs were in power. One story she liked to share takes place when she is flying over a Middle Eastern desert. Below, she saw massive holes, “they looked like giant ant holes.” It turns out that they were centuries-old downshafts for underground tunnels for the Persian water systems. Buchanan would recall her travels with observable fondness and believed that the same sense of wonder was wholly achievable along the San Antonio River.
US/ICOMOS owes a special debt of gratitude to Sally Buchanan for her assistance with its 1996 International Symposium.  Buchanan was a long time member of the San Antonio Conservation Society and served as its President from 1995-1997.  During that time, Buchanan and SACS served host to more the 150 members of ICOMOS from all the nations of the Americas who convened in San Antonio, Texas, at their invitation for the InterAmerican Symposium on Authenticity in Conservation and Management of the Cultural Heritage. The worldwide debate on authenticity was orchestrated by ICOMOS, at international and regional meetings, leading up to the formulation and adoption of recommendations at the ICOMOS General Assembly in Sofia, Bulgaria, in October 1996. The San Antonio Conservation Society, through Sally and then Executive Director Bruce MacDougal, offered logistical support, assistance with fundraising and hosted the spectacular final evening fiesta at one of their properties on Sally’s beloved San Antonio River Walk.

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Sally Buchanan (far right) joins other leaders of the San Antonio Conservation Society and US/ICOMOS Trustee Brenda Barrett (far left) at the 2014 US/ICOMOS Benefit Gala and World Heritage Celebration in Washington, DC.  The event featured a Tribute to the Nomination of the San Antonio Missions World Heritage Nomination and a toast to those that would be traveling to the 2015 World Heritage Committee meeting to secure their inscription, both let by The Honorable Julian Castro, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.  Several months later, the US delegation to the 39th World Heritage Committee meeting in Bonn, Germany were able to consummate the sites’ inscription on the World Heritage List. 

Sally was married to Robert T. Buchanan October 24, 1971. She is survived by her children Garland Matthews Buchanan and Thomas Larkin Buchanan; her grandchildren Eleanor Buchanan, Mary Larkin Buchanan, Virginia Buchanan, George Buchanan, and Lila Chaewon Buchanan; her siblings Eleanor Matthews Stromberger and J. Larkin Matthews; and numerous nieces, nephews, and cousins. Memorial service details are pending. The family requests that in lieu of flowers donations be made to the San Antonio River Foundation (for the Confluence Park Maintenance Fund,, or the charity of your choice.

1 Comment. Leave new

  • She cast a long shadow that will benefit so many generations to come. I am thinking of her family often. She fought the good fight, rests now. Wonder if there are water projects in heaven that need tending. Bless you all.


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