Enough stalling. Now’s the time to improve recreation along San Joaquin River

The people of Fresno and the San Joaquin River have been kept apart long enough.

We deserve safe, public access to the river, and we deserve it now. We deserve what we’ve paid for and what has been promised for decades. We deserve action and resolve. The time for excuses and delays from our wishy-washy elected leaders, who’ve long placed the interests of a politically connected neighborhood group ahead of our region’s greater good, has expired.

Twenty-five years since the concept of a San Joaquin River Parkway was officially launched – and 14 years since $10 million in state and Packard Foundation money was used to purchase the 508-acre Spano River Ranch west of Highway 41 – the renamed River West Open Space Area remains an open secret that’s largely hidden from public view.

As depicted in artist renderings, River West would extend the Lewis S. Eaton Trail some two miles from its current terminus behind Woodward Park. There would be trails, both paved and unpaved, for people to stroll along the river and four adjacent ponds. There would be parking, bathrooms and drinking fountains.

All in arguably the most naturally scenic location in Fresno.

“It’s very clear that this is going to be a nice, big, contiguous regional gathering place for people who like the outdoors,” Melinda Marks, executive director of the San Joaquin River Conservancy, said in September 2003, when the purchase was finalized.

How long must we wait?

After nearly a decade of writing about River West and in recent weeks sitting down with several major players in this process, here’s the best, most honest answer I can come up with:

We’ll get access to the San Joaquin River just as soon as it’s politically expedient for our elected officials – and not a moment before.

Which is shameful.

That statement never rang more true than during the most recent board meeting of the San Joaquin River Conservancy, the state agency created in 1992 to develop and implement a 22-mile-long natural recreation and ecological corridor between Friant and Highway 99 called the San Joaquin River Parkway.

The San Joaquin River Conservancy is the lead agency on River West, a responsibility the city of Fresno abdicated several years ago but over which it still maintains influence. Earlier this year, we reached a key milestone with the release of a draft environmental impact report.

The report, which serves as both public disclosure and environmental analysis, enumerated the proposed project along with five alternatives regarding parking, trail alignment and access points. Documents were distributed, public comments accepted and recorded. If all went according to schedule, the board could have held a vote at its June 7 meeting, resulting in a final EIR that would bring River West a little closer to reality.

But now that won’t happen. Instead we got thrown yet another curveball, one that will only add more needless delays to a project that has been needlessly delayed far too long. And it was pitched by none other than Lee Brand.

Why did the mayor of Fresno, along with City Manager Bruce Rudd, take two hours out of their busy May 2 to attend a San Joaquin Conservancy board meeting? To make River West a better project for the citizenry. At least that’s what we’re supposed to believe.

Specifically, Brand and Rudd were there to make the board an offer: Allow the city, at its expense, to contract an in-depth study toward the construction of a new road from the bluffs near Palm and Nees avenues in northwest Fresno to the river bottom.

On the surface this may sound like a selfless gesture by the mayor. Everyone agrees the heavily traveled Palm and Nees intersection is the critical access point for River West. But let’s examine a little closer.

First, the very same road Brand proposed for further investigation has already been scrutinized by the draft EIR and a separate study undertaken in 2015 at the behest of Fresno City Councilman Steve Brandau, who also sits on the conservancy board.

Both studies labeled this new road as infeasible, or something close to that. Probably because it must negotiate a steep embankment, composed of questionable landfill, and make a tricky hairpin turn to avoid a Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District pond at the bottom. Instead, options utilizing the existing access road were recommended and vetted in more detail.

More importantly, though, this is a project that cannot afford any more delays. Because if the EIR isn’t finalized by the end of 2017, by a board vote, the funding sources and consultant contracts for River West expire. Which likely means another two-year reset, just to get back to where we are now.

That’s simply unacceptable.

In response to Brand and Rudd’s proposal, board chairman Andreas Borgeas, the Fresno County supervisor representing north Fresno and Clovis, made sure everyone knew he understood the urgency.

“The public is tired and bored. It wants results. It doesn’t want any more delays,” Borgeas said, mindful of the ticking clock. “I don’t want this thing to spiral out.”

Brand and Rudd responded to queries from board members with a variety of semi-assurances and vague promises (“We’ll push as fast as we can to get things done,” the mayor said). Then Brandau, via a static-filled speakerphone, introduced a motion to accept the city’s proposal. Borgeas quickly seconded, but not before adding several amendments so convoluted they could scarcely be repeated. Following public comments and more statements from the dais, the board passed the motion with one dissenting vote.

The whole thing felt orchestrated. The people of Fresno got played yet again.

Instead of a potential vote in early June for the most significant addition to the city’s often-maligned parks in decades, one that would provide river access at long last, the process is on hold until Fresno contracts out a complex analysis of a proposed bluff road that was rejected by two previous studies.

Even if this road is deemed feasible, it would almost certainly be the most expensive option. (During an interview in his office, Brandau talked about “adding fill” to the hillside and supporting the new road with pillars. It would also, according to a sketch Brandau drew on his dry erase board, wipe out a good chunk of Spano Park, which is already tiny.)

The larger questions, however, are why these maneuvers are taking place, and why they’re taking place now. If the city wants to study a new road to the river bottom out of the goodness of its heart, let it conduct a study. There was no need to interrupt any of River West’s hard-fought momentum.

Unless there were other motives, such as pushing back a critical vote on a politically charged project. A vote your side might lose.

“When something like this comes up at the last minute, it’s obviously a diversion,” Tom Bohigian, the former Fresno city councilman and state director for Sen. Barbara Boxer, told me in a recent conversation.

“This 11th-hour thing is not a serious proposal. It just isn’t. There’s no way they’re going to make the calendar – and they know it. Then what are we going to do?”

That’s a question I can only answer for myself. This is the first in a series of columns, appearing every few weeks, that will look into the River West conundrum and the San Joaquin River Parkway as a whole.

I want my readers to understand why they’ve been long denied what citizens of other California cities such as Sacramento, Bakersfield and even Stockton enjoy, an extensive trail system and access points along a major river. I want them to know why other cities showcase their rivers while ours continues to be kept in secret.

There’s no easy answer because the origins began decades ago before Fresno’s northward expansion. With regard to River West, however, the debate has been steered by a politically connected neighborhood group now headed by longtime business leader Pete Weber and public relations pro Kristine Walter that has come out victorious in every skirmish along the way. The San Joaquin River Access Coalition (fine name choice) certainly has Borgeas’ and Brandau’s allegiances. That much is clear.

I met with both Borgeas and Brandau over the past few weeks. Both were gracious with their time, answered all my questions and I honestly believe both want to see River West come to fruition. However, it’s also evident they only want it to happen in a way that doesn’t risk an ounce of political capital.

Both men are reportedly eyeing a higher office. Neither wants to be known as the guy who blocked river access to the people of Fresno and the region. At the same time, they don’t dare run afoul of affluent political allies who live on the bluff overlooking River West.

“We have to thread the needle on this” is the phrase Borgeas likes to employ.

Unfortunately, this sort of job requires a hammer. One our elected officials are unwilling to wield.

Just because River West hasn’t been developed doesn’t mean it sits unused. On the contrary. More people are going down there than ever, walking down from Spano Park or driving their vehicles over a toppled fence behind the shopping center. I spoke with a dozen fishermen, mountain bikers, joggers and dog-walkers, most of whom frequent the place on a regular basis.

I also saw heaps of trash and other signs of environmental damage, an inevitable result when an open-space area is deemed a no-man’s land.

While the recent drowning of Neng Thao can’t be solely attributed to the lack of improved access, let’s not dismiss it as a potential contributing factor. People are going to find their way to the river one way or another. It’s the responsibility of our leaders to make these areas accessible and as safe as possible.

In this case, they’ve failed miserably.

Four years ago, for a February 2013 article about River West, I wrote, “When California’s second-longest river flows into its fifth-largest city, hardly anyone notices.”

What’s it going to take to change that sorry sentence? Either a massive public outcry too large to be ignored, or a politician willing to risk getting burned by a hot potato instead of just kicking the can down the road.

Marek Warszawski: 559-441-6218, @MarekTheBee