After a 34-year-career at the Bureau of Reclamation, John W. Keys was happily retired in Moab, Utah, when one day last summer the phone rang. The caller, whom Keys identifies as "a friend of Reclamation," asked if he had considered being the bureau's chief. Keys replied that he hadn't given it a thought. "Well, you should," said the caller.

In December, after George W. Bush won the White House, an official with his transition team contacted Keys, asking if he was interested in the top job at the bureau, which is part of the Interior Dept. Keys said yes. Nominated on June 14, he quickly won Senate confirmation and was sworn in July 17.

After living through a painful downsizing that trimmed Reclamation's work force about 25% since the early 1990s, Keys plans no further big cutbacks or major reorganizations. But after losing many valuable people in that period, one of Keys' priorities is retaining and attracting engineers and others with technical skills. CLICK HERE TO READ A Q&A WITH JOHN KEYS

Also high on his agenda is maintaining decades-old infrastructure. One avenue is the bureau's dam safety program, budgeted at $72 million this year. Other structures and equipment need upgrading, too. "There's a lot of work that is going to have to be done," says Clayton Record, CEO of RSCI, a Meridian, Idaho, contractor.

Another priority, says Keys, is to "try to squeeze a few more drops [of water] out of every one of our projects," partly through engineered solutions such as fish ladders and screens.

There may even be a few more big jobs. Last year, Congress authorized the $276-million Animas-La Plata water project in Colorado and New Mexico and appropriators have approved $16 million in 2002 for it. Lawmakers also are mulling a multibillion-dollar "Calfed" environmental and water storage plan, (ENR 7/30 p. 12).

In its early decades, the 99-year-old agency helped to shape the West with such landmarks as Grand Coulee and Hoover dams. In recent years, however, BuRec has built few megaprojects and instead shifted its emphasis to "managing water." That means wading into fights between agricultural and environmental interests, among others.

A former BuRec Northwest Region director, Keys knows the new realities. He worked with diverse groups over tough issues such as protecting endangered salmon by having the agency buy water from irrigators. He caught the eye of influential politicians like Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), who backed him for the top job. "He's really demonstrated over time he can take conflicts and resolve them," Craig told ENR.

Environmentalists have blasted some Bush appointees but Keys is an exception. "He's an honest, thorough, capable and professional individual," says Dan Beard, National Audubon Society Chief Operating Officer and a former BuRec commissioner. "I think John will give the environmental community, particularly, a fair hearing."

Keys pledges to work with environmentalists. But he adds, "I don't believe in taking down good dams," such as Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. "I would oppose its removal vehemently." He does allow that "there are some old, broken-down ones that are doing more harm than good" and could go.

Keys, who has a bachelor's and master's degrees in civil engineering, says that "people are right that we are not a 'construction agency' any more." But, he notes, "There's always a construction role. Always. Because you have to have construction to manage water."