These days, Johnson is his own boss with the Resource Renewal Institute (RRI). This gives him the freedom to focus on projects of his choosing. "I didn't want to punch anybody's clock," he says. "I wanted to enjoy being at work and wanted to enjoy the people I work with, and that became a priority and it worked out pretty well."
One RRI project primed to make an impact soon is "Fish in the Fields." As Johnson tells it, it was the calm between the quacks that sparked this idea to let fish and farms share the same water, to the benefit of both. "I was duck hunting, because I enjoy hunting. Duck hunting, you're sitting in the middle of a flooded ocean, it seems like. Six hundred-thousand acres of California is flooded for rice, north of Sacramento to Chico. Ducks aren't flying by that often, and you get to thinking."
For the past six years, RRI has worked with biologists at UC Davis studying the potential of raising young salmon in the flooded rice plains. The naturally occurring plankton, it was discovered, fatten up the fish far better than traditional methods, and the efficient use of water could curb the squabbles over the use of Delta water. "The trouble with salmon," says Johnson, "is they're the holy grail of the fish world," and many biologists' careers depend on them.
But salmon aren't the only fish that can thrive in this atmosphere, so Johnson had the idea to raise small freshwater fish to stem the collapse of the world's feeder fish, like sardines, herring and anchovies.
Most of the fish consumed in the U.S. is imported, and most goes to pigs and chickens. The insatiable market for meat, combined with the growing aquaculture industry, is leading to situations around the world similar to 1950s Monterey, when the workforce of 25,000 found itself out of work one day when the sardine fishery disappeared, due in part to overfishing. Fisheries in South America, Canada and the Caribbean have been going dry in the past two years. "These effects are starting to descend, and we pay no attention," says Johnson.
To that effect, the RRI recently built a hatchery for the Fish in the Fields project, making the project completely sustainable. Johnson says he hopes to make a business out of it—not to make money, but to set a precedent for others.
click to enlarge
Photo courtesy the Resource Renewal Institute
SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED Under the watchful eye of then–Secretary for Resources Huey Johnson, Gov. Jerry Brown signs the $120 million Energy and Resources Fund to put money toward alternative energy and natural resources investments on Sept. 17, 1980
Tracing the problems of water supply back to its roots, Johnson started the Water Atlas to chronicle what he already knew was the case: California's water-rights claim system is underfunded, unenforced and mismanaged. "The state agency that keeps the legal records hasn't even got them all straightened out," he says. "You just about had to hire an attorney, if you claimed you owned water; you'd go there and couldn't figure out heads or tails."
The Water Atlas (ca.statewater.org) shows an interactive map of water rights and rates throughout the state. It's far from complete, but with the right funding, the project could become the state's first comprehensive tracking system for water rights and prices through user input and Freedom of Information requests.
California's water supply is being sucked dry at a rate four times its replenishment, Johnson says. Just about 71 million acre-feet of usable water from precipitation hits the ground in California each year; the state currently has claims for over 250 million acre-feet. "One of the first things we did was tally up the amount of legal claims that the courts go to when they want information," says Johnson. "There it is, four times the amount of water that's available."
Say a vineyard wants to expand. They put in a claim to water at their proposed location with the State Water Resources Control Board, which is tasked with enforcement and regulation of water rights claims. "They're supposed to be the enforcement group," says Johnson. "You ask them if they're enforcing anything and they say, 'No, we don't have the money.'" Water-rights claimers know this, and use it to their advantage. "What they do with the application is put it under a stack of about a thousand other applications. And they don't have money to enforce it, so the stack grows and the streams die."
At RRI, Johnson is not only the leader of the charge to save the environment but a perfect example of one of the nonprofit's projects called Forces of Nature. It's a series of interviews with conservationists who've made big impacts on the land; they're like webisodes of the documentary Rebels with a Cause, which came out last year and features Johnson and others who helped create the Golden Gate National Recreation Area around Point Reyes.
Johnson's perspective in the Forces of Nature interview is eye-opening: "The separation that is occurring through the advances in technology are 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. Water is the basis of life, connecting it to the oceans, connecting it to our own bodies, that it becomes a basic connection to life. And we doggone well better be aware of it and better do something to have it continue."
In person, he defines the plight with just as much fervor. "I swim in a pond of problems as an environmentalist," he says. "The most desperate problem we have threatening democracy in America is the need for campaign-finance reform. Because everything's falling apart, and we don't have a sense of why."
But even through his pragmatic approach, Johnson keeps a positive attitude. "You can get bogged down with depression real easy," he says, after describing one of those "how can politicians actually get away with this" situations that he's working to correct. "So you've got to plug along and do what you can do, and if you persist long enough, you do some good."