Meet Our Speakers: Chris Schoneman

Near the southern terminus of California sits the Salton Sea, 375 square miles of water almost twice as salty as the Pacific Ocean. Sitting 230 feet below sea level, this basin has alternately filled and drained for thousands of years, enjoyed designated National Wildlife Preserve status since 1930, and been run under the steady hand of Chris Schoneman since 2004. The preserve encompasses 2,200 acres of critical migratory bird habitat, having hosted over 400 species on their journey through the Pacific Flyway. 1.3 million acre feet of water flow into the sea every year, most from salty agricultural runoff, and this poses a grave threat to the birds. Currently at 59 parts per thousand, the Sea’s salinity is steadily rising as extreme temperatures evaporate much of the incoming water and allow salt to build up. Past 60 ppt, experts predict several of the sea’s critical fish species will be unable to reproduce, and birds have already been found ashore literally starving to death.
    Chris oversees the development of 600 acres of partially desalinated water to serve as a buffer against further avian mortalities, and simultaneously works towards a system to mitigate the salinity of the Sea itself. He recognizes the necessity of cooperation with many different parties, saying, “we need to keep people involved, or we quickly become irrelevant,” but his first concern is for the wildlife. In the words of his longtime colleague, biologist Ray Bransfield, “birds have it rough. They need people like Chris.”

By Hunter Dunn

Meet Our Speakers: Alejandra Calvo-Fonesca


“You’re going to have to swim!” These were the words of Alejandra “Alex” Calvo-Fonesca when our boat ran out of gas in Ciénega de Santa Clara, a vast marsh of recycled irrigation water in Sonora, México. Her mischievous smile told us she was joking, and she quickly produced a paddle with which to rescue us. Wildlife Survey Coordinator for ProNatura, Alex brims with enthusiasm for her job. “It’s like school,” she says. “I’m always learning. Sometimes I have a theory, and my coworkers know what’s going on in the place. We correlate the two and learn. That’s what I love.” When Alex majored in aquaculture at Universidad Autónoma de Guadalajara, she planned to design ornamental aquaria. Instead, she began working at a shrimp farm and surveying birds for ProNatura, a nonprofit that has been collaborating with governments and local communities to restore the Colorado River Delta since 1990.  Now in her ninth year, Alex has risen from fieldwork to the office. “I knew nothing about biology when I started, but they provided a workshop,” Alex explains. She conducted vegetation and wildlife surveys, learning to identify marsh birds such as sora, least bittern, and the endangered Yuma clapper-rail by ear. Alex’s curiosity has earned her a vast and growing base of knowledge. She can point out native cattails and introduced cane, bird species in English and Spanish, and even the way out of a mazelike marsh when your boat runs out of gas.

By Nina Finley