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  • Pioneering environmentalist bids farewell to County after 36 years

    Dec 16, 2022 | Read More News
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    Julia Fonseca has seen a lot of changes in Pima County since she started working here more than 36 years ago—some of which she helped to usher in herself.

    “I became known in the ’80s and ’90s as the County environmentalist, at a time when that was a dangerous thing to be called,” said Fonseca, who will retire as Environmental Planning Manager at the Office of Sustainability and Conservation in January. “I had my bike tires slashed, I had ranchers trying to fire me.”

    Julia Fonseca

    The atmosphere is very different at Pima County now. The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP) eased tensions between environmentalists and ranchers by striking a balance between the need for healthy local development and the need to protect important natural, historic and cultural resources.

    “The County’s policies changed a lot during the development of the plan,” Fonseca said. She was instrumental in the development of the SDCP, which was adopted by the Pima County Board of Supervisors in 2001 and has guided the County’s land use policies ever since.

    Thinking critically about how to take care of the planet comes naturally to Fonseca. Her background is in geology; she earned her graduate degree in geomorphology—the study of the surface features of the Earth—at the University of Arizona.

    Fonseca began her County career at what was then called the Department of Transportation and Flood Control. After being hired to write a grant application for expanding the flood warning system, she joined the department full-time as a hydrologist.

    The devastating 1983 flood was still fresh in everyone’s memory, and County leadership was determined to prevent future disasters by improving flood protection measures, she said.

    “Chuck Huckelberry had a really ambitious program,” she said. “I was very impressed with the breadth of the response and the leadership that he showed after the flood.”

    Fonseca stayed with Transportation and Flood Control for 22 years before leaving to join Pima County Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation. Later, she joined the newly formed Office of Sustainability and Conservation (then the Office of Conservation Science and Environmental Policy).

    Along the way, the focus of her career shifted away from hydrology and floodplain restoration to species protection efforts. One of her proudest moments came in 2016, when Pima County was finally approved for a federal Section 10 permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service after nearly a decade of trying. The permit recognized the County’s conservation efforts and streamlined the thorny process of developing land in sensitive areas.

    “Getting that permit after so many years of trying to reach a consensus with various parts of the community, that was a career highlight,” Fonseca said.

    As she prepares to bid farewell to an accomplished career, Fonseca feels she is leaving the County in a good place.

    “I feel like it’s a good time,” she said. “Because there are really good people here to continue the work.

    “The County has always been a stimulating environment. I’ve been surrounded by people who are performing very well—at times extraordinarily well—and taking career risks and doing important work. I’ve been very happy to have a career here and to work with the people I did.”