Marek Warszawski

Millions spent on river greenbelt, but better hope nature doesn’t call while you’re there

The only public restroom in Fresno near the San Joaquin River is locked shut. Both sides.

Hope it’s not an emergency, because the closest alternative is an 11-minute walk. That’s how long it took me, and I walk fast.

The typical Woodward Park visitor probably doesn’t know – or care – that they’re leaving city property when they drop off the park’s northern edge and head onto the river bottom.

Nevertheless Jensen River Ranch, which sits between Woodward Park and the river, is actually owned by the San Joaquin River Conservancy.

Why does this matter?

Well, it does if you’re down there and need to go.

But in the bigger picture, the locked restroom symbolizes how the vision of a San Joaquin River Parkway remains elusive.

The impetus to create a 22-mile publicly owned greenbelt and wildlife corridor stretching from Friant Dam to Highway 99 formally began in 1988 with the formation of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, a nonprofit.

In 1992, the state of California took over the heavy lifting by establishing a public agency known as the San Joaquin River Conservancy to assemble, develop and manage the proposed parkway.

During the 25 years since, the San Joaquin River Conservancy has invested $33 million to acquire land along the parkway from willing sellers and another $29 million in “planning, design, and construction of habitat restoration, public access, recreation, and outdoor education projects.”

But there’s a rub: Not one dime of that money, nor the nearly $30 million in state bond funds still available for the parkway, nor any of the millions in state and federal grants secured over the years by the conservancy and its partners, can be spent to operate and maintain existing facilities.

Such as operating and maintaining the only restroom in Fresno near the San Joaquin River.

It doesn’t make a ton of sense when the ultimate goal is to provide a public amenity, but that’s how those bonds and grants are written.

Besides the nearby Lewis S. Eaton Trail, Jensen River Ranch is the most visible piece of the existing San Joaquin River Parkway. The 1.6-mile Thomas MacMichael Sr. Loop Trail is heavily used by runners, dog walkers and cyclists. The river access isn’t great (no way to launch a kayak or canoe), but at least you can stand next to it without trespassing – a rarity in Fresno.

Since moving into public hands, the 156-acre area has undergone a significant amount of habitat work. Native trees, including valley oaks and willows, have been planted. Two pastures have been restored. There’s a shaded picnic area, a drinking fountain (still on, thankfully) and, of course, the restroom.

So why is the restroom locked? Depends whom you ask.

According to San Joaquin River Conservancy Executive Director Melinda Marks, the City of Fresno is responsible for upkeep and operations of Jensen River Ranch. When I asked Marks for documentation of the city’s responsibility, she emailed a City Council resolution from November 1998 showing that the city applied for a Recreational Trails Program grant under the stipulation it had “sufficient funds to operate and maintain the project(s).”

However, the grant application (which resulted in $124,720, according to Marks) makes no mention of a restroom, which wasn’t built until 2005.

For several years the City incurred the cost of opening the restroom each morning, closing it at night, keeping it somewhat tidy and occasionally pumping out the vault and pressure washing the interior. But as homeless and vandalism increased, so did the financial toll of its upkeep.

How much are we talking about? When the decision to close the restrooms was made in 2014, about $500 per week according to city officials. How much to reopen them now? About $350 per week, plus vandalism-related expenses.

That’s money City Manager Bruce Rudd insists he doesn’t have – not for a park that isn’t city owned.

“As public agencies we’re very good at ribbon cutting, but we’re not very good at maintaining the assets we already hold,” Rudd said.

“After everyone shakes hands and pats each other on the back, that facility will already begin to show its deterioration. There will be vandalism. There will be things broken. And it’s up to you to maintain that asset, not someone else.”

So the Jensen River Ranch restroom remains closed. Because the city doesn’t want to bear the financial burden, and the San Joaquin River Conservancy doesn’t have a budget for operations and maintenance. Instead, it relies on the efforts of volunteers. (And judging by the amount of litter on a recent morning, those efforts have waned.)

Included in this year’s San Joaquin River Parkway Master Plan Update is a 43-page “funding tool box” devoted to the operations and maintenance quandary. More than a dozen potential funding sources are identified and analyzed. I’ll explore some of them in a future column.

For now, though, it’s hard not to extrapolate. If our public agencies can’t keep one restroom open – the only public restroom in Fresno near the San Joaquin River – how can we expect them to operate an entire parkway?

Something to ponder while making that 11-minute walk.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee