Fresno assembly leader announces $15M for San Joaquin River

Standing near the San Joaquin River on Friday, Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula announced a $15 million investment in the agency that oversees parks in the area.

The money is aimed primarily at operations and maintenance of conservancy land along the San Joaquin River Parkway, and will go to the San Joaquin River Conservancy.

Supporters standing in Wildwood Native Park on Friday said the money is a win for a region that lacks green spaces and has the potential to benefit young people of color.

“We also know that families and individuals benefit from these spaces to support their health and well-being, and the COVID-19 pandemic magnified the importance of these uses,” Arambula, D-Fresno, said. “I also see these funds as an investment in our youth and in their future.”

State Sen. Ana Caballero, D-Salinas, has partnered with Arambula in the effort.

Fresno ranks 97th among the top 100 most-populated cities in the country for public green space access, acreage, investments, amenities and equity, according to the Trust for Public Land. Residents in neighborhoods of color have it worse as they have “access to 8% less park space per person than the city median and 44% less than those in white neighborhoods.”

San Joaquin River

The conservancy has more than 2,600 acres of land, but only about 750 acres are formally open to the public. That’s primarily because of the lack of funding to maintain it, officials said.

Conservancy Executive Officer John Shelton said the new money will go to upkeep and cleaning the parks and will allow the conservancy to open up more hours of operation. The gates to the park now open only on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.

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Executive Officer of the San Joaquin River Conservancy John Shelton talks Friday, July 23, 2021, about a $15 million earmark for the conservancy for operations and maintenance. Thaddeus Miller [email protected]

“Open space that is available for recreational use is essential to community health and quality of life. We need more, especially in our region,” he said.

The conservancy does not have hard numbers on what demographics use the parks, Shelton said, but is working toward that goal some day.

The parks in Madera and Fresno counties are near communities made up prominently of people of color, Shelton noted.

More than half of Fresno County is Latino, and the county also has an Asian population of 11% and Black population of 6%, according to the latest U.S. Census numbers. The Native American population is about 3%.

Madera County’s demographics are largely similar with slightly more Latinos (59%) but fewer Asians (3%).

The conservancy and the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust have some programs that encourage people to visit the parks especially when they are young, officials said. That includes a program for Madera-area sixth-graders and another youth program with Building Healthy Communities.

Those programs are not specifically aimed at children of color, Shelton noted, but connect with schools with large populations of minorities.

Another effort to increase the access to diverse communities comes from the Arambula-authored Assembly Bill 559, which would expand the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board to include a more diverse voices in decisions related to the river.

BHC CEO Sandra Celedon said the push for parks funding and efforts like Measure C in Fresno link back to the efforts of teenagers, whom were primarily from neighborhoods of color.

“It was really a bunch of young 13- and 14-year-old kids that asked us and called on us to advocate and advance this call for more and better green space in the Central Valley,” she said.

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Reporter Thaddeus Miller has covered cities in the central San Joaquin Valley since 2010, writing about everything from breaking news to government and police accountability. A native of Fresno, he joined The Fresno Bee in 2019 after time in Merced and Los Banos.