In summary

AB 559 seeks to expand the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board to ensure equitable access to the decision-making process in Madera and Fresno counties.

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By Destiny Rodriguez

Destiny Rodriguez is the regional community relations manager of The Climate Center,

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Andrew Escamilla, Special to CalMatters

Andrew Escamilla is the Central Valley regional organizer for the California League of Conservation Voters,

It may be hard to imagine, but many families in Fresno and Madera counties never get to enjoy the pleasures of the San Joaquin River, the beautiful waterway in our own backyards in an area starved for green space. 

According to the Trust for Public Land, Fresno ranks 97th among the top 100 most-populated cities in the country for public green space access, acreage, investments, amenities and equity. The picture is especially grim for residents in neighborhoods of color, who have “access to 8% less park space per person than the city median and 44% less than those in white neighborhoods.”

For these communities in Fresno and Madera counties, the San Joaquin River Parkway has the potential to provide a rare connection to nature and its public health benefits, including lower stress, better mental health and opportunities for social interaction. But the stark reality is that, despite the fact that it is public space, access to the river has historically been limited, due in part, to the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board.

Assembly Bill 559, authored by Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula, would change that, by expanding the board to include a more diverse and equitable array of voices in conservancy decisions. 

The board currently has 15 seats, and only two are dedicated to residents of Fresno and Madera counties. Of those, one seat is filled from a list of private landowners along the river; the other is selected by a local environmental organization. AB 559 would allow the governor to appoint two more board seats — one from local tribal organizations and the other from the public at large. It also would remove the requirement that one county resident must be a property owner, and would require the Fresno and Madera boards of supervisors to develop their lists of candidates from a list submitted by local nonprofit organizations that support outdoor recreation, conservation, environmental justice or social justice issues.

The current board’s makeup is out of touch with the interests of the communities it serves and does not align with their needs. The conservancy was established to provide public green space to local communities, yet the board chooses to limit access to the river. 

In 2019, for example, it considered plans to provide three public access points to the Lewis Eaton Trail, which would have expanded community access to the river. But due to disagreements about the access point locations, the board failed to pass the proposal, delaying plans that had been in the works for years. To this day, river access points are still located primarily on private property.

The pandemic has not only emphasized the need for all residents to have access to green space, it has clearly revealed the severe lack of access for many of our disadvantaged communities.

We call on the California Senate Natural Resources and Water Committee and the state Senate to pass AB 559 and its supporting funding, and on Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign it. With this support, we can bring equitable representation to the conservancy board. 

Everyone has a right to enjoy nature. AB 559 offers the perfect opportunity for the state to amend the board selection process to reflect the region’s diversity, to invest in the Central Valley’s families and to make access to nature more equitable for everyone. 

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