Huey Johnson

Ode to Water

Recorded: February 5, 2014

Huey Johnson, Founder of the nonprofit Resource Renewal Institute recalls some personal experiences that explain his passion for water. Huey continues to focus on water issues with his New California Water Atlas, an open data resource that is free to all. You can access the Water Atlas at: http:  He is also working on a project that will protect the basis of the ocean food chain - forage fish - while providing a clean and renewable source of protein that a hungry world demands. Have you considered supporting Huey's work with a donation to the Resource Renewal Institute?

Huey D. Johnson founded Resource Renewal Institute following his service as California Secretary of Resources in the Jerry Brown Administration (1978 -1982). His pioneering policy, Investing for Prosperity, was one of the first comprehensive and long-term environmental plans in existence.  Since the early 1990’s, when the first nation-scale environmental policies appeared in the Netherlands and New Zealand, Mr. Johnson has promoted these and other Green Plans. He remains an authority on the subject and the third edition of his book, Green Plans: Blueprint for Sustainable Earth, was published in 2008 by University of Nebraska Press.

Huey’s early career included serving as the Western Regional Director and later President of The Nature Conservancy where he was instrumental in many Western conservation victories such as Maui’s Seven Sacred Pools, and Marin County’s Bolinas Lagoon and Marincello open space, now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Mr. Johnson founded The Trust for Public Land and The Grand Canyon Trust, as well as the international arm of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Wangari Maathai’s  Green Belt Movement. His pioneering policies and land acquisitions helped define much of the land trust movement that has flourished over the past three decades. Among numerous awards, Mr. Johnson received the 2009 Armory Pugsley Medal for outstanding promotion and development of public parks in the United States. He has also received honorary doctorate degrees from Dominican University and Utah State University, where he completed his Masters degree in biology.

Mr. Johnson received the United Nations Sasakawa Environment Prize in 2001, capping five decades of success building political coalitions to achieve substantive policy change. An active sportsman in his late 70’s, Mr. Johnson has two grown children and two grandchildren and lives with his wife Susan near San Francisco, CA.


Huey Johnson:    Steve Steinhour, our colleague sitting here but not participating, stirred this thing, and here we go.  He said he felt water was a critical issue in my total scope of career and philosophy and interest. And whether or not agreeing with him, I decided all right, I’ll just try to track that theme.  So I start out: why would water be important to me?  And among one of the first memories I have was as a child in a very small rural community, probably at the age of 7 or something, there was a stream near our house, probably a mile away. And with another little boy or two, we’d all go out and camp for the night.  We were allowed to take a bag and we’d go out there with a sleeping bag and set up camp. A parent would come by at dusk to make sure we hadn’t drowned or something or other.  But that – those lovely days and other experiences like them in the State of Michigan with a hundred lakes all around me. Ice fishing in the winter as a small child, a parent would take four or five boys — little teeny kids — and just dump us at the edge of a field, of a lake in the morning, in this icy snow. And then we’d go out on the lake and chop a hole and fish all day, and another parent would pick us up in the afternoon.  So in any event as a child, I had a lot of water-oriented experiences.

Huey Johnson:    The presence of so many lakes meant you could always — we’d work on the assembly lines in the factory on the night shift, because you made more money. After we’d get off about one or two in the morning we’d always go out and go swimming in a lake, all the kids, high school and college kids, etcetera.  So that maybe is a reason.  I had a lot of interest in fishing and a lot of interest in things relating to fishing.  My parents, my teachers, I think, probably somehow related to that, in the interest.  I read a lot as a small child, sometimes advanced books on environmental affairs, I think, but once the important experience came I – it was June, 1956 and I graduated from college.  And at that time the economy was burning so hot that you could get a job every day if you applied for it. I’d had a couple of wonderful offers of high paying, quality jobs as viewed by my parents and my colleagues at school, and I was having trouble thinking about which one I wanted.  So I said; Well I’ll just go fishing and I’ll think about it while I fish.  So I loaded up my old car and I took off by myself, and I got as far as the river called the Grand River in the town of Grand Rapids, Michigan.  The river flows through central Michigan and in those years it collected all the pollutants from the heavy industrialized places.  My community where the Grand River flowed had 35,000 people working and assembling automobiles, for instance.  And I stopped, got out of the car for some reason and parked beside the river in Grand Rapids and decided I’d take a little walk. The river smelled badly; it was so polluted.  And there was oil on top of the water, and there wasn’t any living thing you could see in any direction.  I sat there and thought, You know if these people in this state don’t care enough to look after the basics in life, then I don’t want to live here.  I went fishing, came home, turned down the jobs, loaded my car and drove away, never to return.  I’ll get back to that in a moment.

Huey Johnson:    And I have had wonderful experiences that caused me to care about water. One of the startling ones, when I was going to go trout fishing in my favorite stream in Montana, the Clark Fork I think it was, or which ever one it was.  I walked up the stream to go fishing and there was no water in it.  The hay farmers had taken it all and it too smelled to high heaven from the dead things.  And at that time – until then, I hadn’t realized that somebody owns that water, so that set me off in trying to do something about water.  Spent some years trying to find some ways to get water, more quantities of water in streams for salmon to be able to spawn, and so on.

Huey Johnson:    Another experience was going to Alaska, just deciding to go one morning.  I was working for the Fish and Game Department at Lake Tahoe and we got so many screwy instructions that were politically loaded; I thought you know, I don’t have a career fooling with this kind of stuff.  So I resigned, hitchhiked to the Reno Airport in the morning, and flew to Alaska and had a job with the Fish and Game Department before nightfall.  They were really in a rush to hire people to do a certain kind of research.  We tagged 12,000 salmon in the Gulf of Alaska, half a dozen of us, and then went in two man teams recovering the tags.  And I drew a place called Admiralty Island, where I got to see salmon by the zillions every day.  Every day, you go up a stream and there would be bears in the stream, and I got so I equated bears and people and salmon — native people’s particularly.  And I worked on — that summer when we tagged those salmon — on a native boat owned by the tribe on that island.  They were leased by the Fish and Game Department.

Huey Johnson:    In any event, a relationship with some of the native people, and the fact your lives are so tied to salmon… it became an important indicator to me, as salmon is very delicate.  It is as delicate as a snowflake as a young fish.  They are very sensitive to any chemical in the water where they’re hatched. In the ocean they’re equally sensitive.  They spend part of their life in the ocean, part in the streams where they go upstream to spawn. It becomes a, kind of a very gripping, emotional force to have an indicator of environmental quality in the form of a totem.  The idea of pollution and the intrusion that industrialized society was making on nature through the –making water not usable, always bugged me a good deal.

Huey Johnson:    And so over the years I would joust around with issues relating to these themes and there are a lot more of them.  Well anyway, now 50 years later, a couple of weeks ago I returned to Michigan.  My sister had died and it was a memorial service that I had attended.  And I went back. She lived in that town where I smelled the river that time, and I was kind of fearing it. I was going to go back and see the river.  And the hotel, I had — damned if it wasn’t right on the river, like from here to the wall.  Boy, I got up early in the morning, first day. I went down to the restaurant, you looked out the window, you just had… a window out on the river, and I opened the paper and it said: “City Council votes to recreate the Grand Rapids again.”  They were going to take out all the dams.  And looking back, looking back — you know since 1956, and realizing, you know, they’ve come a long way, and we all have.  Just in the middle of all that, I was looking out the window – the other thing we’d done was plant salmon in the Great Lakes before I left — and a big salmon jumped.  And it was the day of the funeral; so I’m still emotionally shook up over it. But just that symbolism of that day and returned 50 years later, it was remarkable and still is.  They now have huge salmon runs, but the Grand rapids were once — it was a drop of 18 feet where the rapids roared through the community, and they harvested it with a number of small dams to make milling stations for grain, for saw mills, for whatever it was, and now they’re not using any of it.

Huey Johnson:    Another water story, I was sitting in a bar in Singapore — here was a river — it was the Raffles Hotel. The Raffles Hotel in Singapore is famous in history, of novelists –Somerset Maugham and a whole list, Hemingway and others I suppose, stayed there.  So always like everybody with a fantasy, I thought geez, I’ve got to go to Raffles Hotel.  The place really was run down. Boy it stunk and its walls were cracked and floors dirty, and we had our beer and went on about it.  But the next time I was in town was probably 10 years later and I went in the hotel again.  And here was a uniformed guy out in front in this sleek military uniform greeting guests like — salute and all that.  And the inside was white marble; it was sparkling and flawless and you went to the bar and I think a beer was 10 bucks at this stage, because it was upgraded, and I said, “What happened?”  They said “well, they had had a leader in Singapore who was something of a dictator,” Remember, Shen something, and one day he looked at the river and realized it smelled and was badly polluted.  He called in one of his top aides and he said, I want you to clean up that river.  If you do it, I’m going to give you a gold medal. Do it.  And gee, it was clean and crystal clear.  Political leadership, great example of that — and use of force.  He didn’t – he really didn’t – when he said, “You do it,” people did it or got out of town if they couldn’t do it.

Huey Johnson:    The ongoing struggle in California. California is really run by water interests in the Central Valley who get water free in violation of the Public Trust, really. And then they sell it for huge amounts to the cities.  They call themselves nonprofit.  The Westland’s Water District Director is the highest paid state official.  He makes $400-and-some-thousand a year. Those guys really, really are nefarious characters in my view. I’ve always said as much.  Well, that didn’t do me a lot of good when I was in Sacramento, having to oversee water because I soon learned they had a lot more power than I did, because of all the money they contributed to politics.  They had the legislature in their pocket, and they had Congress in their pocket, only on that subject.  So it was found recently when we decided to redo the state water records, the special interests in the Central Valley, they kept the water records so convoluted that it was damn near impossible to understand them, you had to hire an attorney.  If you had ownership to a piece of water you could claim, you’d have a tough time figuring that out from the official state records.  And people working here with us, computer whizzes, over lunch said, “We can straighten that out.”  And I said, “I doubt it.”  They said, “Oh yes we could.”  I said, “I don’t think so.”  They said, “Yeah, we’ll just get some [unintelligible] software.”  I said, “Well, if you can do it, I’ll pay for it.”  And they went off and they got all the state records and then we had a ceremony in Sacramento and gave them to the public on a website; so they’re now listed and anybody can go [].  And there was an upside to that, wonderful little stories trickling in.  One of the first ones, some people in a village above Bakersfield in the foothills thanked us. They said that now we understand why we’ve been getting water bills all these years.  We’ve been getting billed for water at the Bakersfield golf course.  It’s one of endless little stories of corruption.  So now they’ve gone ahead and done a study of the aquifers of California, how good they are, where they are, which ones you can count on if you’re going to dig a well.  California is about the only state that doesn’t limit — we don’t equate underground water with surface water, even though it’s obviously connected.  And so in one sense, having that [unintelligible] when I was in Sacramento, I feel somewhat pleased that we’ve had, I don’t know, 12,000 visits in the couple of months it’s been up, as people have turned to it for various reasons.  And we were able to do that really because we got a bequest from a fellow who wanted to help fish and water – Antonioli was his name.  And we’ve now – he gave us a million and a half I think — we’ve now spent it all and we’ve gotten an awful lot done.

This separation that’s occurring through the advantages and technologies is so fascinating to people, that they’ve abandoned the sense of awe that one gets from looking at a mountain at dawn, or duck hunting, watching the dawn come, or being alone in a woods or a forest, in a wilderness area.  These are precious, precious assets that society owns.  My worry is, if we don’t create an ongoing awareness and connection, those will be lost.  And water as a basis of life, connecting it to the oceans and connecting it to our own bodies — up to 90% of our body is water, you know, that it becomes a basic connection to life and we doggone better be aware of it and we better do something to have it continue.