Last year, Ron Johnson marked a quarter century working for Santa Margarita Water District. The milestone nearly matches another significant achievement in his life—his sobriety.
Those two achievements coupled with a well-earned reputation for embracing challenges inspire many who work with Johnson, including SMWD General Manager Dan Ferons. “Ron is one of my heroes, he is smart, humble and a great person to work with,” Ferons said.
Originally from Tampa, Florida, Johnson began working for SMWD in 1995 as an operator-in-training (OIT) at the Oso Creek Water Reclamation Plant. Though he had worked as a chemical engineer for about ten years following his graduation from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a substance use problem had brought him low. He wanted to hit reset, even if it meant starting from the bottom all over again. And so it began when he received the OIT job assignment through the rehabilitation facility where he was working through the steps of recovery.
OITs at SMWD and other water systems quickly learn that no job is too menial as they learn the trade and study for operator exams. Johnson remembers hours spent weeding, painting, and other facility housekeeping chores in addition to his duties helping with the water system operations. “It wasn’t exactly fun, but I motivated myself to do it,” he said.
It was a far cry from the high expectations his mother had set for him as an African American child growing up in Florida at a time when local racial segregation laws were slowly being removed. A self-proclaimed “nerdy kid” who checked out a stack of books from the library every weekend, Johnson had skipped grades in elementary school and graduated from high school as valedictorian at age 16. Teachers and counselors saw potential in him as well, putting his name forward for special summer school sessions at acclaimed Phillips Academy Andover in Massachusetts and later, an undergraduate degree at MIT.
At SMWD, Johnson may have been overqualified in terms of experience and education but serving in this role with willing heart and body was part of his recovery. He liked that SMWD provided a very valuable service for the community and that, through his contributions, he made sure that portions of the plant worked smoothly. He was making a difference, however small.
When the Oso Creek plant shut down temporarily because the reservoir was full, Johnson shifted his time between Chiquita Water Reclamation Plant and the Nichols Water Reclamation Plant, a small package plant with add-on filtration that SMWD operates under contract with Quest Diagnostics. It was there that he began to demonstrate a penchant for problem-solving and innovation.
Back then, the Nichols plant didn’t always run smoothly. Turbidity levels (cloudiness in the water) frequently climbed beyond specification, resulting in middle-of-the-night calls to the standby operator to get the filtration system back in gear. Johnson started doing some research to find a solution and he found one: daily backwashing of the filters. Coming out of the state’s lengthy drought ending in 1992, the practice of backwashing the filters had been seen as a waste of water. Johnson’s idea for backwashing and changing out the filter medium used was implemented and soon the late-night calls stopped.
Johnson’s ability to find answers to tough challenges ranged from reducing flooding at 3A Water Reclamation Plant which sat near a storm drain that backed up every time it rained to working with engineering consultants to solve a nitrification issue at Nichols to minimizing odors at Chiquita. Like untangling a knot, unlocking the mysteries of why something isn’t working well provides Johnson with great satisfaction. “I’m proudest of my reputation as a problem-solver,” he said.
Service to others is also a point of pride for Johnson and a key component of his recovery, he is careful to note.
During both the routine and the challenging times, Johnson gleans support and meaning from his wife Ty and their two children, Jordan and Alanna. He lights up when he talks about Jordan’s interest in stock market investing and his studies at Saddleback College as well as Alanna’s artistry and interest in social justice as she completes her senior year at Capistrano Valley High.
“What God enables us to do for others is what keeps us going,” Johnson said. “That has been my philosophy and my approach to work and life.”
Still, working in wastewater treatment can be an undervalued occupation, Johnson said. When people kid him about working in a facility that cleans the water people flush out of their homes, they miss the point entirely. He’s proud of the work he does ensuring that water flows and turns into recycled water to be reused again. Now as SMWD’s Treatment Manager overseeing four plants, he tries to inspire those who work for him to feel the same.
“My job today is to serve the people on my team so they can grow in their roles,” he said. “I’m here to make sure they have what they need to do their work and also to help them if they make a mistake.”
Authenticity and personal connections are also key to Johnson’s management style. “I don’t hide my recovery because some people need to see my transformation from a hopeless dope fiend to a dopeless hope fiend,” he says. That turn of phrase also appeared on a license plate holder on Johnson’s old Suzuki, visible for all to see in the parking lot (that is, until he gave his son the car).
That hard-won optimism shines through Johnson’s calm and understated demeanor and infuses his approach to even the toughest challenges.
As he tells his team members, “We might not be successful with the first thing we try, but we’ll keep coming up with better solutions until we get it right.” It’s an outlook that has served both him and the district well.