Bureau of Reclamation chief retires after
Patricia R. McCoy
Capital Press Staff Writer
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
“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
“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
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
“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
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
“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
“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