In 1980, Ray Hiemstra had no idea he'd be one of the leading environmental activists in Orange County, let alone working as the associate director of programs at Orange County Coastkeeper. Working in a solid union job at a Jerseymaid milk plant with full benefits and a pension, Hiemstra had a stable career to support his family. But as a natural outdoorsman and a former Boy Scout, his childhood dream was to work in nature, a dream Hiemstra thought he left behind.
Fullerton-born and North OC-raised, Hiemstra graduated from Savanna High School in 1978 and attended Cal State Long Beach, where he pursued a degree in geography and environmental studies. "If I don't hold the record, I'm definitely a contender for taking the longest time to get my degree," Hiemstra says with a laugh. "I mean, I graduated high school in '78 and graduated from Long Beach in 1999. I almost went to college continuously part-time, but I had a career that I stayed with for 25 years and got married."
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But had his college career been different, it's likely he wouldn't be where he is now. As he was finishing up his last bit of school in April '99, one of his teachers assigned a project requiring students to focus locally on one of the four elements: fire, water, earth or air. "I picked water because some of my previous school projects involved water, and it really caught my interest," Hiemstra says. "For the project, we had to volunteer with a local group involved with our element, and I'd seen several articles on this group named Coastkeeper, so I thought I'd volunteer for them. But they didn't return my calls—it took calling four or five times before I heard back from anyone!" He laughs. "But I worked on the big Irvine Coast project where Coastkeeper sued the Irvine Co. I was doing water-quality monitoring to develop data for the lawsuit, so I was working with top-notch attorneys and water-quality experts. It was a dream situation for volunteering and developing skills."
Hiemstra was a star volunteer. By 2000, Coastkeeper hired him as a part-time employee. In 2005, he retired from the milk plant and joined the Coastkeeper team full-time—just a year before Poseidon Water began pushing for a desalination plant in Huntington Beach. "Poseidon started making noise in 2006, but then went away for a while," Hiemstra says. "But since 2010, it has been a constant effort and has become such a regular part of my life. It's funny because there's a whole group of us who work on this project that I never would have met or hung out with if it weren't for Poseidon, and they're great people. So while we're fighting this giant, I've really made some wonderful friends."
While Coastkeeper has been a dream-fulfilling second career for Hiemstra, he's not taking any of it lightly. "We're in for some interesting times ahead," says Hiemstra. "Right now is crucial to be active in the community. If you're frustrated with what's going on—get involved. You can do something about it."