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With Board Shake Up and $15 Million, Lawmaker Aims to Expand River Access

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A group gathers on the bank of the San Joaquin River. (GV Wire/David Taub)
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As a beaver and children played in the San Joaquin River, a Fresno assemblyman talked about changes he wants to see on the state board that governs access to the local waterway.

During a news conference to celebrate a $15 million allocation in the state budget for the San Joaquin River Conservancy board, Joaquin Arambula, D-Fresno, hinted at his concern with the current structure.

“We have looked towards this conservancy which has a mission of opening up 5,900 acres, but currently has only opened up just under a thousand acres to public access. That is important with these funds that are before us that we will have an opportunity for many of our communities of color to be able to access green spaces and to be outdoors,” Arambula said.

Turmoil Over River Access Point

The board has been in turmoil for several years over where to build an access point to the waterway that separates Fresno and Madera counties. The 15-member group finally approved construction of a roadway and parking lot below the bluffs at Spano Park at the north end of Palm Avenue.

Currently, the 15 board positions include four Fresno/Madera elected officials, three appointed community members, and representatives from two regional water-related agencies and six state agencies.

Arambula’s proposal, AB 559, would create two new positions on the board and eliminate one. It would also change the criteria of how local board members are selected.

Fresno Leaders Decry ‘Loss of Local Control’

At the news conference, stakeholders praised the $15 million funding.

“This funding… is going to provide opportunities for that access instead of limited hours for parks and open space. We will be able to provide extended hours so that more families… will be able to come out and get healthy, walk and bike and have celebrations, family celebrations on the San Joaquin River Parkway,” said Sharon Weaver, executive director of the nonprofit San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.

But, others think Arambula is selling out to Sacramento.

“I am glad that Assemblyman Arambula finally has an interest in the San Joaquin River, though I wish it wasn’t at the last minute once all the hard work has been done and with a willingness to sell our local interests to Sacramento for $15 million. Our independence and voice should be as priceless a treasure as the San Joaquin River,” Fresno City Councilman and SJRC board president Mike Karbassi said.

Fresno County Supervisor Steve Brandau, who also serves on the board, expressed similar concerns.

“Loss of local control is always concerning,” Brandau said.

Arambula disagrees that the bill is taking away local control.

“I think state conservancies are designed to be like other state conservancies. And for us to make sure that the San Joaquin River Conservancy was aligned with the state conservancies meant we had to learn from those other state conservancies,” Arambula said.

Both Karbassi and Brandau said they were not invited to Arambula’s news conference.

Not all local SJRC board members were concerned. Kacey Auston, representing the flood control district, said she hopes the legislation will increase participation from Madera County. She is not worried about local control.

More Color on the Board

At Arambula’s news conference on the river, only one conservancy board member attended: Madera Mayor Santos Garcia.

He decried the fact he was the only member of color on the board.

“I was the only Latino and I still am. There are no Hmongs on the conservancy board. There are no African-Americans, there are no Punjabis. And it’s directly tied to the lack of opportunity for people of color to be on this board and making decisions as to how we provide access to our community,” Garcia said.

Arambula said his goal of adding two new positions is aimed at diversifying the board. The six state agencies also have a role in expanding representation for communities of color, he added.

“It has been a point of advocacy for my office to also reach out to those agencies and advocate for us to have diversity reflected on to the conservancy board and will continue to push those agencies to have diversity reflective of the community that I have the honor of serving,” Arambula said.

GV Wire reached out to the six agencies with appointees on the board, but did not receive a response by time of publication.

Adding Youth, Native American Representatives

Arambula wants to add two dedicated seats to represent local youth, and Native American tribes. The governor would chose appointees based on names submitted by youth-serving nonprofits and local tribal organizations respectively.

A late change to the bill would also consolidate the appointees of the two regional water boards. Instead of each board appointing members, a single board seat would rotate between the two agencies every two years.

I thought it was important, if we could, for us to consolidate the Fresno Metropolitan Flood District as well as the Madera Irrigation District, as they perform similar tasks, into one seat. Our adding to two new voices was important for us to diversify the opinions on the conservancy board by both adding a tribal nations seat and a youth seat for those between the ages of 18 and 26. I believe we provide a diversity of opinions now on the conservancy board,” Arambula said.

So why not consolidate the six state agencies with overlapping jurisdictions?

“We wanted to make sure that this was aligned with where the other state conservancies are. The other state conservancies continue to have a predisposition towards having a majority come from state agencies and believe it was important for this bill as well for us to be consistent with where state conservancies are members,” Arambula said.

The three citizen positions include a representative of Madera County, Fresno County and the city of Fresno.

The two county positions alternate on what criteria used for nomination between environmental justice groups or property owners. For example, if Fresno County nominated a member representing a property owner along the river, Madera County would nominate a representative of an environmental justice group.

The governor makes the pick from names submitted by the respective county Board of Supervisors.

AB 559 changes the criteria of the nominees and who makes the pick. The county would now have to pick a name submitted by outdoor recreation, conservation, environmental justice, or social justice issues groups.

The Senate Committee on Rules would pick the Fresno County representative; the Speaker of the Assembly — currently Anthony Rendon, D-Lakewood — would pick the Madera County nominee.

Fresno Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula (left) and SJ river conservancy executive John Shelton celebrate a $15 million state budget allocation. (GV Wire/David Taub)

Comparing Other Conservancy Boards

Arambula says these changes are to be in line with other conservancy boards in the state. Of the 10 state conservancy boards, two others deal with rivers — the San Diego River Conservancy and the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy.

“We just needed to align it with where those state conservancies are,” Arambula said.

Like the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board, the other two river-related boards were created by the state legislature. Both have 15 members, a combination of local elected officials, state agencies and the public.

For the San Diego board, state agencies have five members, five are from local or regional governments, and five from the public picked by the governor (3), Senate Rules committee or Assembly speaker. The public members are not required to represent a specific constituency.

The Los Angeles river board consists of three state agencies, nine local or regional governments and three public members who meet certain criteria picked by the governor.

Arambula’s office said other conservancy boards’ public members are picked by the method, by either the governor, Senate Rules committee and Assembly speaker.

Status of Arambula’s Bill

Arambula’s bill cleared the Assembly floor with a 56-17 vote on May 27. The two assembly members who represent both sides of the river, Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, and Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, voted no.

AB 559 is now in the state senate. It cleared the natural resources committee by a 7-1 vote. It is next scheduled for a hearing by the appropriations committee on Aug. 16. If it clears, the bill heads for the senate floor.

Senator Anna Caballero, D-Salinas, who attended Arambula’s news conference, said she supports the legislation. Melissa Hurtado, D-Sanger,  said she has yet to form an opinion.

In an update to when this story first published, the office of Sen. Andreas Borgeas, R-Fresno, sent this statement:

“As a former Chairman of the San Joaquin River Conservancy, the Senator certainly appreciates the operations and maintenance funding for the SJRC. Though there are some serious concerns from Fresno County and Madera County regarding the proposed change of composition to an even greater majority of State executive and gubernatorial appointments. The governing bodies of Fresno and Madera counties have representatives on the conservancy board who represent all stakeholders potentially impacted by the decisions of this governing body as opposed to narrow interest or stakeholder groups,” Borgeas said.

The Fresno and Madera city councils have formally supported the measure; the boards of supervisors in Fresno and Madera counties have formally opposed it.

Update, 7/27/21: after publication of the story, the California Natural Resources Agency sent this statement:

“The California Natural Resources Agency supports the work of the San Joaquin River Conservancy. Our designee on the board helps to lead the Natural Resources Agency’s finance and budget team and is an expert on capital funding and project development, experience that is very helpful to the work of the conservancy. Across our agency, we continue to make progress diversifying appointees to boards and commissions to reflect California.”

David Taub has spent most of his career in journalism behind the scenes working as a TV assignment editor and radio producer. For more than a decade, he has worked in the Fresno market with such stops at KSEE-24, KMJ and Power Talk 96.7. Taub also worked the production and support side of some of TV sports biggest events including the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals and NASCAR to name a few. Taub graduated from the University of Michigan with dual degrees in communications and political science. You can contact David at 559-492-4037 or at Send an Email