Funny thing about the San Joaquin Valley – it’s named after a river of the same name. This second-longest river in California has its three sources in the incredibly beautiful snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains just east of Fresno. And not long after its North, Middle and South forks all converge in a strikingly gorgeous granite-walled valley that even knocked the socks off John Muir, the power of this snow-melt driven fury blasts into its much larger namesake Valley and serves as the northern border of both the City and County of Fresno until it turns north and meanders through Firebaugh into Merced County.
When we began searching for a site to build our educational Public Aquarium back in 2000, our nonprofit board of directors had several criteria. The project had to be freeway-visible and freeway-accessible to maximize attendance and on donated land to minimize debt. We also felt passionate about the efforts to beautify Highway 99 – which is what far too many people think of as Fresno as they are traveling through. In 2002, when the Jura family offered our organization their property directly adjacent to Highway 99 overlooking our Valley’s river – we were thrilled to say the least. It met all of our criteria and added another exciting component: How better to teach the history of this place that so many people simply drive on through today than to give them an opportunity to stop and experience the real power of this river?
An Aquarium is simply one tool in Fresno’s toolbox that can be utilized to tell the world the story of our Valley and to educate our own population about the interconnectedness of our region to the greater world. Visitors could view the river as a metaphor for Fresno as the source and conveyor of so much bounty flowing out into the world – as long as the story is compelling, engaging and reinforced by creative, interactive, meaningful and inspiring presentations.
Of course, merely building our Aquarium on the banks of the San Joaquin River does not make the project authentically Fresno. But the stories that begin to unfold as soon as visitors enter our main doors must leave them with a deeper sense of respect and understanding of both the history and present-day issues unique to this place in the world or we will have failed. It must motivate them to become better stewards of our Valley’s water resources – armed with knowledge that we must impart to them about how terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems are undeniably intertwined.
Let me conclude with one last thought. In order for any city or region to be attractive to visitors and businesses, it must work to support many cultural institutions. Museums, Zoos, Theatre, Opera and Dance companies, Planetariums, Art Galleries, cultural arts and entertainment districts and even Aquariums all have their roles as vital amenities within any given community. When thinking about Fresno’s Aquarium, always remember that great water aphorism: “a rising tide lifts all boats.”