Marek Warszawski

San Joaquin River Parkway clearly needs help. Maybe state parks can lend a hand

Joaquin Arambula was a student at Edison High when the state of California backed the concept of a recreational parkway between Friant Dam and Highway 99.

Twenty-six years later, the San Joaquin River Parkway remains mostly that: a noble concept that has yet to be realized.

During that time, a state-managed conservancy has spent $33 million to acquire land along the river and another $29 million mainly on planning, design, habitat restoration and outdoor education projects.

Yet there’s still no parkway. Instead, what we have today is a piecemeal patchwork of lands with no connective thread. With a few exceptions such as Lost Lake Recreation Area and Sycamore Island Park, there’s little to no public access. Why not? Because there’s no money for operations and maintenance.

None of this is lost on Arambula, who today represents western and central Fresno County, as well as the southern half of Fresno, as a Democratic Assemblyman in California’s 31st District.

As a potential solution, Arambula has introduced legislation to expand the Millerton Lake State Recreation Area downstream to include the San Joaquin River Parkway. Assembly Bill 3218 would bring the 22-mile parkway under the state parks umbrella and provide much-needed capital for operations, maintenance and ranger patrols.

Arambula estimates the total cost as between $5 million to $7 million per year. In addition, $6 million would be added onto a state bond for land acquisitions.

“This will give us the opportunity to bring state resources to the table,” Arambula said. “Areas like ours that historically get left behind, I think there’s a glaring need for the state to make investments in our communities so we can have the same opportunities the rest of the state does.”

RIVER (1) (2)
The long-envisioned San Joaquin River Parkway, 22 miles of connected open space from Friant Dam to Highway 99, would get a major boost in a bill proposed by Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula. CRAIG KOHLRUSS Fresno Bee file

It’s no secret that our region is underserved by the state parks system. Millerton Lake is the only state recreation area in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare counties. (Wassama Round House outside Oakhurst and Colonel Allensworth in southern Tulare County are state historic parks.) The next closest recreation areas are San Luis Reservoir and Great Valley Grasslands, located in Merced County.

While most state park resources are devoted to coastal areas — and rightfully so — those of us in the fast-growing central San Joaquin Valley deserve a few more crumbs from Sacramento.

An extra $5 million to $7 million per year, in a time of a $7.5 billion state budget surplus, is just that. Especially if that money helps bring people closer to a largely hidden, underutilized natural resource: the San Joaquin River.

Readers know I’ve long stood on this soapbox. It’s good to hear a local politician climb aboard, as well.

“When we test SATs, one of the examples they use for why certain populations have struggled with it is they don’t have access to certain vocabulary,” Arambula said. “I can remember when I took the SAT they talked about a current, a current in a river. What if you’ve never seen a river? What if you’ve never put your hand into a river?

“Opening up a parkway will open up the eyes of so many within our community about wildlife, habitat and what’s within the natural amenities in our backyard. I really do believe this piece of legislation will help create that momentum.”

The idea of bringing the San Joaquin River Parkway under the state parks umbrella is not a new one. Congressman Jim Costa has championed it for decades, but previous legislative efforts have led nowhere.

Maybe this time the politicians in Sacramento will actually listen to our concerns instead of burdening the bill with unrelated amendments and deep-sixing it to the bottom of the legislative ocean.

Joaquin Arambula (2)
California Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula

We can always hope.

“I anticipate we will get a very strong hearing this year and I’ll be able to push this as far uphill as I can,” Arambula said. “I underpromise and overdeliver. I’m not going to promise this gets through this year, but I will be in this for the long haul because I need this parkway before my daughters are in high school.”

Arambula’s three daughters are 6, 5 and 2 years old.

Even if it passes, the bill is not a panacea for the parkway. There’s still the not-so-simple problem of convincing landowners along the river to sell their properties, or at least rights-of-ways, in order to form a continuous trail system. Of the 5,900 acres needed, we’re still about 2,050 short. But at least it would address the ongoing operations and maintenance headache.

It would also help if our local politicians presented a united front, across party lines. I would implore Assemblymen Jim Patterson and Frank Bigelow, both Republicans, to lend their support. (Patterson’s spokesperson told me he and Arambula have yet to meet.)

There are some who would say that we don’t want our parkway subject to the whims of Sacramento, especially since our region often gets treated like a bastard stepchild. To those people I ask the following question: Where have our efforts these last 26 years gotten us? My answer: Not far enough.

“I feel like we can move this far along,” Arambula said. “Whether we’re able to complete it will depend on how big our coalition is and how loud our voice can get.”

Related stories from Fresno Bee