Conservancy could solve parkway woes

Fire crews from Oak Park, Sacramento Metro and Natomas Fire departments fought four fires in the Woodlake Area of the American River Parkway.
Fire crews from Oak Park, Sacramento Metro and Natomas Fire departments fought four fires in the Woodlake Area of the American River Parkway. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Another year, another plan to fix the American River Parkway. Still, we’re hoping this latest idea might just work.

As the 23-mile urban forest continues to struggle in the wake of devastating budget cuts during the recession, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty, D-Sacramento, has suggested creating a state conservancy like the one that has so benefited the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

McCarty’s plan, which he plans to introduce in legislation in January, could establish another source of funding to improve one of the greatest assets of Sacramento County. With millions of additional dollars potentially available under such a structure, the advantages could be huge.

Since 1996, California has allocated about $740 million in bond measures and general funds to rivers. About $660 million of that has gone to rivers with state conservancies. In that time, only about $3 million has gone to the American River Parkway.

The disparity shows.

We hear about it almost weekly, with a rapidly growing footprint of often destructive illegal campers, who have dug in deep along the stretch near Discovery Park. Many have blamed them for setting disastrous, drought-fueled wildfires this summer with now-banned barbecue grills and cooking stoves.

This has happened, in part, because this lower portion of the parkway is underutilized. With a conservancy, state money could be used to add amenities such as a nature center or to restore wildlife habitats and add bike paths. More use might deter rogue campgrounds.

The county has done what it can.

In September, faced with massive blazes creeping near homes and apartment buildings, supervisors approved an additional $500,000 to combat illegal camping and provide services for the homeless. The parkway’s ranger unit also was expanded to 23 positions from its recessionary 13.

Supervisors have been slowly boosting funding for the Regional Parks Department after years of decline. Still, those resources are nowhere near enough to adequately deal with the perennial problems on the parkway, let alone fund major improvements. Those might actually happen with a conservancy.

Supervisor Phil Serna, who is working with McCarty and Sacramento City Councilman Jeff Harris on the plan, cautioned it’s not a slam dunk. Plenty of previous efforts to change the way the parkway is managed and funded have fallen short. Like the plan in 2002 for a nonprofit partnership. Or the one in 2009 to create a joint powers agreement with Sacramento and Folsom. Or the one in 2010 that evaluated all possibilities for governance.

McCarty says a conservancy would not change day-to-day control of the parkway. A board of representatives from Sacramento County, the state and perhaps cities along the parkway would decide how to spend any funding. The rest would remain the same.

But details can be worked out. After years of uneven investment, it’s time to find a bigger, better, more stable source of funding for the American River Parkway.