He looked out for land and water

With the end of the year approaching, my thoughts go to an environmental champion who passed away during 2020.

Huey D. Johnson, 87, died in July at his home in California as a result of a fall. His credentials were striking: presidency of the Nature Conservancy, founder of the Trust for Public Land, recipient of honors from the United Nations, and late in life the founder of the Resource Renewal Institute, an innovator in environmental thinking.

I connected with Johnson a couple of years ago while researching the book that’s behind this blog. The focus was his role in helping rescue Mono Lake — at 45,000 acres the second-largest body of fresh water in California and the health of which was seriously impaired by diversions of water to Los Angeles 350 miles away.

In the late 1970s, while serving as secretary of resources under California Governor Jerry Brown,  Johnson received an unusual package in the mail. It was an artfully designed ceramic brick that was adorned with the hand-painted words “Save Mono Lake.” On another side was written: “One brick in every Los Angeles toilet tank could save Mono Lake.”


The brick was the creation of Deborah Small, a ceramics student at the University of California, Irvine. It was inspired by clay bricks that conservation-minded folks in Los Angeles had been putting in the backs of their toilets to save water.

The artist believed that making and mailing decorative bricks to about 20 officials in the state might draw attention to how diversions from streams leading into Mono Lake were harming the lake and the people and wildlife that depended on it by lowering its water levels and increasing its saltiness.

Johnson told me that he had been aware of the lake’s problems but he also had plenty of other things to attend to. He explained that he didn’t quite know what to make of the brick. The thing sat on his desk day after day until one day he gathered his staff around to talk about Mono Lake. They decided to arrange a series of hearings around the state.

The hearings called on Los Angeles officials to explain why they felt they had a right to disturb the ecosystem of a lake that was hundreds of miles away.

The record from those hearings ultimately played a crucial role in a state Supreme Court decision in 1983 that the water requirements of Los Angeles should be balanced against the impact of the water diversions on the environment and recreational activities in and around Mono Lake. Changes were made, and the lake has since recovered. Here’s a good short film.

The story of Mono Lake is ultimately about more than a single lake. It’s also about the range and depth of citizen action. Credit for the rescue owes initially to locals who cared, but also  environmental groups, donors, lawyers, the courts and state officials who got on board, even a young ceramics student who saw what was happening and tried to do something about it.

At the highest level, the story is about humans’ place in nature as expressed in the two following quotes.

The first is by Johnson himself, in testimony before a Congressional subcommittee on how better conservation in Los Angeles could reduce that city’s drain on Mono Lake: “The Department of Water and Power is captive to a cornucopian philosophy that there always be more.”

The second is from a remembrance of Johnson. that appears in a collection of salutes to him following his death: “Huey lived on the road to the future. He understood a fundamental reality: that the future of human society was critically dependent on the health of Earth’s natural systems.”


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