This is part of a Valley Public Radio original series on how the health of rivers impact the health of communities produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship, a program of USC's Annenberg School of Journalism.
Even in the middle of a drought, the San Joaquin River is a lush oasis of water and wildlife at the northern edge of sprawling suburban Fresno.
The river begins in the high country of the Sierra Nevada and flows downstream through Millerton Lake, past golden hills into a broad river bottom that’s flanked by tall bluffs on both sides. It’s home to wildlife from spawning salmon to deer, osprey, and red tailed hawks.
On this warm spring morning, Dave Koehler and I launch a canoe into the river. We’re less than a mile from Fresno’s busiest streets and shopping centers, but out here - it’s like another world.
“We’re paddling on the San Joaquin River about 12 miles below Friant Dam and we’ve just come into this 1,200 acres of public land west of Highway 41 – a planning area for the expansion of the Lewis S. Eaton Trail and public access,” says Koehler the executive director of the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust.
He’s talking about something called River West. Right now it’s a vast expanse of pasture and wetlands that was once slated for private development. It will now be preserved for public access, hiking trails and habitat restoration as part of the 22-mile-long parkway.
“Fresno will know it as sort of that growth area out towards Madera,” Koehler says. “Everyone else in California will know it as the place you cross the San Joaquin as you are on your way to Yosemite.”
But River West is also the source of controversy - a clash of ideals between public access to public land, and the concerns of the residents who live on the bluffs overlooking the river, in one of Fresno’s most exclusive neighborhoods. And in a city that ranks last in the nation when it comes to access to parks, the fight is about more than trails and canoe trips – it’s about the health of the community.
DISPUTE OVER ACCESS
Right now getting to River West is a challenge. Decades ago when the city drew up plans to build homes here, they planned for a street to descend from the bluffs to the river bottom. Today it’s a dead end, but Koehler hopes it will become River West’s front door.
“The largest point of conflict is should there be vehicle access to the property at its midpoint, which is accessed off of Del Mar from Audubon Boulevard which was designed for multi-modal access to this property,” Koehler says. “The Bluff homeowners want to seal off access there.”
Those residents say they’re concerned about increased traffic in their neighborhood and don’t want their quiet street turned into the entrance to a major park. The San Joaquin River Bluff Homeowners Association even convinced the City of Fresno to remove the entrance and parking lot from the city’s new general plan.
Barry Bauer is the owner of Herb Bauer Sporting Goods in Fresno, a bluff homeowner and a member of the association.
“We’ve got a thousand people that live close to this project that are in jeopardy relative to safety and quality of life to those kind of things,” Bauer says. “It’s reasonable to maintain the integrity of this neighborhood just like they would do in any other neighborhood in the City of Fresno.”
Bauer claims there will be ample access and parking for Fresno residents from other entrances without using their neighborhood. But according to Koehler, that would require an extra 10 mile roundtrip, by driving into Madera County, making a U-turn at the first exit, crossing back over the river into Fresno and parking underneath Highway 41.
“Without the vehicle mid access point we will be polluting the air more from residents wanting to get to the river and many people in Fresno will be shut out from experiencing the parkway,” Koehler says.
The bluff homeowners also want the planned two mile extension of the Eaton Trail as far from their homes as possible. Bauer says the trail should be “near and along the river.”
“They wanted to put the trail 400 yards away from the river right at the base of the bluff where nobody could ever see or get to the river and stuff,” Bauer says. “To have it here is kind of silly.”
But Koehler says putting the trail too close to the river would put it at risk of floods and damage sensitive habitat.
PARKS & HEALTH
This fight over access takes place in a city notorious for its lack of parks and open space. Last month, the Trust for Public Land’s Center for City Park Excellence ranked Fresno last in the nation for its park to citizen ratio for the third year in a row.
Peter Harnik is the director of the organization.
“Parkland only takes up 2.2 percent of the city,” Harnik says. “The unfortunate news for Fresno is that Fresno is at the bottom of the list, the good news for Fresno is that from everything we can tell the city is working hard to try and climb out of the basement.”
Harnik says that score could improve dramatically if River West and other planned city projects like five new playgrounds are completed.
“In the city you have 500,000 people that need to be educated learn about nature, see nature, have fun and be active and to close off 1,000 acres or more of natural lands is just not really fair to the people who live there,” Harnik says.
But what does this system of trails along the San Joaquin have to do with health? The Parkway Trust believes that adding the acreage for public use will directly impact the health of Fresnans.
Health experts like John Capitman agree. He’s the director of the Central Valley Health Policy Institute where they study demographic differences and health disparities across California by zip code.
“There’s significant evidence in public health that people who live near parks, have access to parks and open spaces engage in more physical exercise have better cardiovascular health, report lower levels of stress, lower levels of mental health problems,” Capitman says.
He says the issue over public access speaks more to a divide in Fresno that permeates economics, class and culture.
“We not only have incredibly poor access to open space for Fresno residents,” Capitman says. “We have this dramatic inequality of north and south in the city. So the folks who live in the older and less affluent parts of our city really don’t have access to open space and given our high rates of respiratory and cardiovascular disease it really is a concern and it’s likely that places to be physically active is a factor in that.”
Capitman says Fresno needs to rethink the way parks are viewed.
“We ought to think of resources like parks as something that is a resource for the whole community, not just for the residents that live right around them,” Capitman says.
WILL THERE BE RESOLVE?
Back on the river bottom, Koehler and I witness what River West could offer to the greater Fresno region. Future trails, fishing ponds, kayaking on the river, and wildlife.
“It’ll be a place where people can get out and be on their own and enjoy it with their families or for people looking for a little solitude time by themselves - plenty of natural areas on the 1,200 acres to find a spot and enjoy the river bank,” Koehler says.
Just where and how Fresno’s 500,000 residents will be able to access the project remains uncertain. Barry Bauer says his group will sue if the city reverses course. Other possible entrances are also being evaluated. But for now, the interests of some of Fresno’s most powerful and affluent residents have the upper hand in the fight to bring the river to the people.