Over the last six decades, public access hasn’t meant much along the San Joaquin River on Fresno County’s west side. Who cares about boating, fishing or swimming in a dry river?
But even the massive river restoration project may make little difference. There are few places on the west side where people can reach the river without trespassing.
And while a coalition of nonprofit groups has set improved public access on the west side as a major goal, there are no detailed plans, funding or land set aside to accomplish it.
Firebaugh, which has three riverside parks, is the river’s major public-access point on the west side. Another is at Skaggs Bridge park, 30 miles upstream at Highway 145.
But the two access points are too far apart for most boaters, who typically like to float just a few miles down a river before getting out. The 30-mile stretch would be impractical for boaters who mostly canoe, kayak or row on the shallow river.
“You would take two days to do it,” said Fresno resident Eric Kaai, 45, store manager of Fishermans Warehouse in Fresno and an experienced kayaker. “I don’t know of any other access out there. They need some kind of public launching and takeout places about every five miles.”
For many years, boaters have had the same complaint about the San Joaquin River Parkway, which is slowly accumulating more access points along the northern edge of the city of Fresno.
The river along the parkway, a 22-mile greenbelt between Friant Dam and Highway 99, has continued to flow, thanks to decades of federal water releases from Friant for riverside landowners.
The west side, by contrast, has been mostly dry since Friant was built in the 1940s.
Once the river is restored, people will have the right to boat the San Joaquin all the way to the west side because it is a public waterway. But the public does not have the right to enter and exit the river on private property.
Many officials and landowners fear problems — litter, vandalism and illegal camping — could develop on private property from uncontrolled access.
“Landowners are very concerned,” said Jason Phillips, restoration program manager for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which owns Friant Dam.
Firebaugh officials, however, welcome the public. The city’s three parks, including Andrew Firebaugh Historic Park, are connected by trails and are located along the river.The parks are two blocks from downtown and serve as as a gathering place for residents to spend time by the river.
“The water has been flowing year-round here for a long time,” said City Manager Jose Ramirez. “We definitely have a recreation jewel here.”
Firebaugh’s stretch of the river has remained wet through the years because farm districts use it to move water downstream for irrigation in various locations.
A lot of that irrigation water comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta through canals to the nearby Mendota Pool.
The San Joaquin’s native water from Friant Dam again will flow year-round down past Firebaugh when the restoration gets into full swing.
West-side access is one of the goals outlined by a new partnership of 10 nonprofit groups advocating conservation agendas for the river restoration.
The San Joaquin River Partnership includes the Trust for Public Lands, the Audubon and the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.
The river parkway trust has worked more than two decades to prevent development of homes and businesses right up to the river’s edge near Fresno. Public access is a thorny issue here because there is little money to provide maintenance and security in public areas.
The parkway’s most popular public access is the Jensen River Ranch at Woodward Park, which the city of Fresno manages. Other sites include Lost Lake Park and Wildwood Native Park.
Downstream on the west side, land will need to be set aside for public access. Access should be part of a natural river, but the river partnership group does not want to interfere with farming, said Dave Koehler, executive director of the parkway trust.
“We think agriculture is a good neighbor,” he said. “We want to see a healthy, attractive place, and public access is part of that picture.”