Fresno’s long-delayed, hotly disputed river access area may finally break ground | Opinion

Is 2024 the year we finally see some shovels in the ground at Fresno’s most frequented but undeveloped river access area?

Maybe. Maybe not.

Like seemingly everything involving the San Joaquin River Parkway and the state agency entrusted with assembling the 22-mile recreation and ecological corridor from Friant Dam to Highway 99, the situation is unclear.

The description fits multiple elements of the River West Fresno Open Space Area, 290 acres of river bottom lands on the Fresno side of the San Joaquin River west of Highway 41 that for more than a decade was the subject of bitter dispute and litigation.

During Wednesday’s meeting of the San Joaquin River Conservancy governing board, interim executive director Karen Buhr said River West Fresno would cost roughly $17 million to build as envisioned. Buhr further indicated the conservancy had $15.5 million in hand, leaving a $1.5 million shortfall.


“We’re going to find the money to get this done,” Fresno City Councilmember Mike Karbassi pledged from the dais. “We’re going to find a way to get this across the finish line.”

Since the city of Fresno is the lead agency on the project and working directly with the consulting group Provost and Pritchard on the engineering designs, I attempted to confirm those figures. However, Scott Mozier, the city’s usually informative public works director, did not respond to an email.

Buhr’s $17 million price tag for River West Fresno is $7 million higher than previous estimates. I immediately wondered how much of that money will be spent to extend the Lewis S. Eaton Trail for 2.4 miles and build parking lots and bathrooms, compared to how much will be spent to construct a new road to the river bottom through Spano Park at Palm and Nees avenues.

A road that, as you may recall, was mandated by a 2020 legal settlement after a group of influential bluff homeowners sued the conservancy board for not getting their way. Fun times.

How did the San Joaquin River Conservancy procure the $15.5 million that Buhr said is available for River West Fresno? While about one-third is coming from state bonds, the majority is from the special $15 million earmark the agency received in the 2022 state budget.

That $15 million, shepherded by Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, was intended to fund maintenance and operations of parkway properties — a long sticking point that prevented many from being open to the public.

The decision to use $9.3 million of maintenance and operations funding on a single capital improvement project was made during January’s board meeting. (The $15 million had a fiscal year 2026 expiration date, and members have long been concerned it wasn’t going out the door fast enough.)

Why did the board choose this course of action? What was the justification for appropriating the remaining O&M funding and tossing every dime at River West Fresno? Beats me. I wasn’t present nor viewing online.

Unlike other government agencies, the San Joaquin River Conservancy doesn’t post minutes of board meetings. Nor are video recordings of past meetings (including January’s) reliably available on CMAC, YouTube or anyplace else someone interested might look. Nor is there any real social media presence.

Parkway’s unseen logo

But you know what the conservancy does have? A new logo. I was in the room when board members enthusiastically approved a logo that will be used on all parkway signage and future branding opportunities.

The logo depicts the side profile of a snowy egret surrounded by two shades of blue in a circle that’s broken up by the bird’s protruding beak.

You’ll have to take my word on that, though, because there’s no sign of the logo on the conservancy’s website. Nor on its Facebook page (that had 22 followers at last count). Nor was it included in the informational packet handed out at Wednesday’s board meeting.

The San Joaquin River Conservancy’s primary logo, as adopted by board members during their February 2024 meeting. The logo will be used on river parkway signage and other branding opportunities.
The San Joaquin River Conservancy’s primary logo, as adopted by board members during their February 2024 meeting. The logo will be used on river parkway signage and other branding opportunities.

It’s a new spin on the old joke about trees falling in the forest out of earshot. If a government agency unveils a logo the public can’t see, is it really visible?

Buhr has served as the conservancy’s interim executive officer since May, officially working part time. When will a full-time replacement be named? Wednesday’s agenda contained a closed-session item on the vacancy, and at several points Buhr used the pronouns “her” and “she” in direct reference to her successor.

However, the item ended up getting scratched, and after the meeting Madera County Supervisor Robert Macaulay, the current board president, said there was “nothing new to report” on the executive officer hiring.

Since Buhr’s appointment last May, a lot of time and effort has been spent crossing governmental t’s and dotting bureaucratic i’s. While this strategy should help the agency fulfill its future mission, tangible progress in the present day has been sorely lacking.

Conservancy properties are less accessible right now (by both the general public and partner nonprofits) than they were a year ago.

River West Fresno has the potential to drastically swing that perception, provided the official groundbreaking occurs in 2024 as previously anticipated. But like everything else associated with the San Joaquin River Parkway effort, things are murky.