- Felicia Matlosz
SACRAMENTO, CA – Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday, September 16, signed Assembly Bill 559, authored by Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula (D-Fresno). The legislation will bring more diverse community representation to the governing board of the San Joaquin River Conservancy.
The new law will go into effect January 1, 2022.
AB 559 will ensure that a wider spectrum of community perspectives are reflected on the governing board of the San Joaquin River Conservancy, which is dedicated to creating a parkway along the river. The Conservancy acquires land, restores valuable habitat, and expands recreation opportunities for the public. The board guides the development and access of conservancy property.
One aim of AB 559 is to broaden representation on the board through environmental and social justice communitybased organizations that can bring forth the voices from disadvantaged communities that have not had access to parks and green spaces.
Assemblymember Arambula said: “I’m profoundly grateful to Governor Newsom for recognizing the importance of this bill and what it means for our region. We know that parks and green spaces are vital to the physical health and mental well-being of our people, and the COVID-19 pandemic made this even more abundantly clear. The changes made by AB 559 will only strengthen the San Joaquin River Conservancy board. As the board continues to oversee the development of the river parkway into a regional treasure, those decisions now will include voices that reflect our communities’ diversity and perspectives.
The Conservancy currently has 15 members from Fresno and Madera Counties. AB 559 adds one seat and creates new openings. One seat will be dedicated to a member of a local Native American tribe, in recognition of the historical significance that these lands hold for our Native American tribes. Another seat will be dedicated to a youth member between the ages of 18 and 26. At the same time, one seat will be rotated between the Fresno Metropolitan Flood Control District and the Madera Irrigation District (each previously had its own seat).
In addition, AB 559 would require that the board chair and vice chair positions be open to all board members in the board’s annual election. Currently, the two seats are rotated among elected officials from the City of Fresno, Fresno County and Madera County.
The bill is sponsored by the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, a local nonprofit organization that has worked for decades alongside the San Joaquin River Conservancy to conserve land along the river and maintain areas for public use.
Sharon Weaver, Executive Director of the Trust, said: “The San Joaquin River Parkway & Conservation Trust is grateful to Governor Newsom and Assemblymember Dr. Joaquin Arambula for introducing positive changes to the San Joaquin River Conservancy Board with the signing of AB 559. The implementation of AB 559 will allow the Conservancy Board to more accurately reflect the demographics of California and the San Joaquin Valley. We are pleased that the bill introduces equity by making the chairmanship open to all members and increases cultural and age diversity of board members.”
The Conservancy is at a pivotal point. The agency has approximately 5,900 acres of land within its planned
parkway, but currently only about 1,000 acres are opened for public use. Insufficient funding for operations and maintenance is one reason for this circumstance. However, the State Budget this year includes $15 million earmarked for the Conservancy to address this issue and improve access and recreation opportunities for the public.
Supporters of AB 559 include Fresno Building Healthy Communities, a coalition of community groups, faith-based organizations, and young people working on a long-term foundation for a healthier community for generations to come.
Sandra Celedon, President and CEO of Fresno Building Healthy Communities, said: “Assembly Bill 559 means more people from low-income and underserved communities will have access to the San Joaquin River, and the public will have a greater say in how the river parkway is developed for generations to come. This is a huge win for outdoor equity and a win for our democracy. We applaud the leadership of Assemblymember Joaquin Arambula and Governor Newsom to get this done, and we also applaud the community members who keep advocating for more opportunities to enjoy outdoor spaces and recreation while developing community leaders who care about climate, air, water, and other natural resources."