Bureau of Reclamation Chief Retires
by Pat McCoy
When John W. Keys III stepped out of retirement five years ago to become commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, he found a drifting agency faced with pressures to do a lot of things peripheral to the bureau's original mission.
He retires on April 14, leaving behind an agency refocused on its primary mission: to deliver water and generate power while still accommodating the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and other laws and regulations.
Keys accomplished much more during his tenure. One of the most important is the Water 2025 Initiative.
"When we first came, the Klamath Basin decision to not deliver water to irrigators had just been made. My first assignment was to somehow find enough water to go around and get some back on the land. We found about 75,000 acre feet for the irrigators that year," Keys said.
"Once that was done, Interior Secretary Gale Norton called me and an assistant secretary to her office to ask where else in the United States there were conditions that might lead to another Klamath Falls problem," he said. "We started looking and put together a map showing a number of hot spots."
Exploding municipal populations created a lot of the locations where the bureau foresaw water supply problems in the future, he said. Many sites needed water for the ESA, Native American tribes, recreation, new industry, fish and wildlife, and a lot of other stuff. Water 2025 grew out of that.
"Very simply, Water 2025 is a source of challenge grants made available to help fuel water conservation. The goal was to help irrigators conserve and find mechanisms to make water available for new needs while still protecting base irrigation water rights," the commissioner said.
Water 2025 Successes
Keys can point to a number of successes under the program. One was establishing a water bank in the Klamath Basin, setting aside 100,000 acre feet of water each year for threatened and endangered species while still making full delivery of irrigation water to area landowners.
"We're fortunate to have good water supplies in the Klamath Basin this year, but even so, the water bank is working. We've been able to accomplish something there," Keys said.
Thanks to the initiative, the Bureau of Reclamation has a new dam in southwest Colorado about 35 percent complete. A quantification settlement agreement was completed for the Colorado River, and the agency is moving on developing a shortage criteria and coordinating the operating criteria between Lake Powell and Lake Mead, he said.
A species conservation plan for the Platte River is nearing completion. Idaho has the Nez Perce Settlement, and the bureau's regional office in California has completed some 130 of the 144 renewal contracts in need of attention. Storage studies under the California Bay Delta Protection Program are about half done.
"We have a good program in Water 2025. President Bush has been briefed on it. We're trying to get it permanently authorized by Congress," he said.
While Keys accomplished most of the goals he set when he became commissioner, he's disappointed that Congress has not yet completed work on rural water legislation.
"Right now projects to provide water to rural communities set up away from where it's available are authorized randomly by Congress. Our legislation would create a standard procedure and a rhyme and reason the way such projects are studied, authorized and constructed," he said.
The commissioner also regrets that no final solution has been found yet for the Columbia River Basin issues.
"I don't know if one will ever be found, but I hoped to be closer to one before I left office," he said.
Keys has some words of advice for his successor: Respect state water right laws absolutely, and connect with the water user community.
"Our job is to work with water users. As far as I'm concerned, irrigation people are the best in the world. Whoever becomes the next commissioner must get acquainted with them and the water organizations out there, and work closely with them," he said.
With so much accomplished, it's the right time to retire, and pure coincidence that his departure comes so closely upon Norton's resignation as Secretary of the Interior, Keys said.
"I've put in almost 40 years with Reclamation. I have a good team together that can keep things going. I've a wife and three grandchildren in the West I need to get back to. It's time to go home," he said.
Home is Moab, Utah, he said.
Keys was highly praised by Norton when she announced his retirement on March 17.
"John is a consensus builder who spent a long career with the Bureau of Reclamation, then agreed to join my team to lead the bureau as commissioner. He will be missed," Norton said.
The Idaho Water Users Association also praised Keys for his years of distinguished service, including several years as head of the bureau's regional office in Boise.
"We are truly sorry to see him leave public service, but wish him the absolute best in retirement," said Norm Semanko, IWUA executive director.
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