John W. Keys III was sworn in July 17 as head of the Interior Dept.'s Bureau of Reclamation. On July 25, Keys was interviewed in his office at Interior's main building in Washington, D.C., by Tom Ichniowski, ENR's Washington bureau chief. Excerpts from that interview follow:

NO STRANGER Keys, 34-year Bureau man, now in top job. (Photo courtesy of Bureau of Reclamation)

ENR: It's unusual that someone who's a long-time career person, and retired…would want to come back here and take on this job. How did this come about?

Keys: I finished at Georgia Tech in 1964 and went to work for the Bureau of Reclamation right out of school. And .I worked for them all over the West for 34 years.. The last 18 of it was in Boise, Idaho. And it was a good career. I ended up with a lot of friends

I ended up as a regional director in charge of a good, big program dealing with a lot of hard issues. And I felt that it was good successful career.

When I retired, my first thought was just to get as far away from that kind of pressure as I could. I was a part-time pilot. I was on a water board. I was on an airport board for the county. I flew for Angel Flight, Air Lifeline….volunteer flying organizations that fly patients' families around that can't afford it or can't get here from here into the small places where there's no airline service.. I flew almost all over the West doing that….I flew search and rescue for Grand County [Utah].

I was doing all of that and you may just call it an idyllic life because I was doing what I wanted to do. I didn’t have to wear a cussed shirt and tie every day. It was shorts and T-shirts for three years.

ENR: What part of Utah did you live in?

Keys: I lived in Moab [which] is down in the Red Rock country, next to Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. Another thing my wife and I did was volunteer a day a week in Arches National Park….

I never thought about coming back to work. I didn’t give it a thought until last summer. A person called me and said, 'Have you ever thought about the appointment to be the Commissioner.'

ENR: And who was that? Someone from the administration?

Keys: No. A friend who maybe had some friends in places. Let me put it this way--a friend of the Bureau of Reclamation.

He called and asked had I ever thought of it. And I said, No. And he said, 'Well, you should.'

So I thought about it and I thought, 'My goodness, there may be some good you can do there. And it would be the chance to go back and work with a lot of old friends.

Talking about retirement I would tell you that from the time I retired until I came back to work. I never missed the work for a minute. But what I missed was the people I was working with and the associations that we had.

After the election, a member of the transition team called on Dec. 15 and asked me would I consider [the appointment]. I had thought about it for several months before…..When they called I told them, yes.

ENR: How did they get your name? Was it this 'friend of Reclamation' do you think? Or had you had some informal feelers.

Keys: There had not been feelers, but I understand that there were several people that actually recommended me for the job.[including Senator [Larry] Craig from Idaho, Senator [Michael] Crapo from Idaho, Senator [Gordon] Smith from Oregon, some former Congressmen.

It was based on the work that I had done while I was in Idaho as regional director. We were able to get some things done working with the local water users with the state legislature that we thought and stil l think did a lot of good. Working with the Endangered Species Act for salmon and yet at the same time we were able to maintain our [water] contract deliveries.

ENR: Under the previous administration and I think even a little before that the role of the Bureau had been changing from its historic role as a major construction agency that helped obviously develop the West over many decades. They were shifting away from a construction agency to a water resource agency. I wonder what are your thoughts on that? Are you going to continue that path or do you see construction role for the agency.

Keys: There's always a construction role. Always. Because you have to have construction to manage water. I see Reclamation as a water management agency and at times we have to do construction to meet that goal.

Are there going to be any more large projects like there were in the 50s and 60s? I don't know. That’s up to our society, which has changed some of its views on large construction projects. But I will tell you, that at some time there may need to be some. What I will also tell you is that if there are some we would do it and meet every [National Environmental Protection Act, Endangered Species Act] and whatever requirement that there is there.

If I had to characterize Reclamation…I would say that in some of the early days we managed water for construction--in other words we were actually looking to build the big water development projects. Now we use construction as part of that management process that we have to do.

Now we are still doing a lot of construction work, under our safety of dams program. There's a lot of the old ones that we're having to rebuild. There are innovations on the facilities. We still have a great construction capability and are using it in the safety of dams program and where we need to work on [maintenance and upgrades]. It's just not the primary focus that it was at one time.

ENR: I want to talk about a couple of potential big projects that are out there. One is Animas-La Plata. What's the status?

Keys: Congress last year passed a completion act for Animas-La Plata and we are in the process of implementing that. There is money in Reclamation's 2001 budget that we're operating under now, for activity. I am sure that when the 2002 budget is passed…I'm sure it will be passed with money [for Animas-La Plata] in there. And I'm sure that our 2003 proposal will have Animas-La Plata [funding]. Our intent is to construct the Animas La Plata project as it was last approved by Congress.

ENR: Another is the 'CalFed' plan.

Keys: The CalFed program is one that was negotiated collaboratively, constructed with the state of California and a bunch of interests.

The [plan] that’s being discussed now does not get even get to the final construction itself. There's construction in there for some of the minor facilities but it doesn't get to the [water] storage features of the project.

The answer is yes, there's construction in there. Yes there's a lot of construction in there. Most of it in early [stages] is small stuff and a lot of it is environmentally oriented, like fish screens and canal linings and fish ladders and exclusion facilities and that sort of thing.

ENR: So obviously the agency is changing

Keys: Yes, people are right that we are not a "construction agency" any more. We are a water management agency that uses construction to get its job done. And yes we've got good people in the construction end of our process.

I was part of that [change at the Bureau]. I was a regional director working with [former Commissioner] Dan Beard to put that [plan] together.

I think we're water managers. We just use construction to manage water.

There's not always enough water to go around. And what we're trying to do is develop strategies where we can use water more than one time. There's times were we can use water five or six times and satisfy five or six of those folks [irrigators, municipalities, power users, environmental interests] before it gets to the end user.

ENR: It occurred to me that as someone who's trained as a civil engineer going into the Bureau of Reclamation, an engineering-based organization, certainly at that time and maybe still today--did you ever think that when you were finishing up your engineering degrees that…your role would be trying to be more of a negotiator, if you will, rather than a builder--trying to get all those people to manage water rather than to pour concrete?

Keys: No I don't think so. I had a civil engineering degree. But all of my electives when I was in undergraduate school were in water resources. I came up through the hydrology end of civil engineering. And my master's degree was in water resources from Brigham Young.. I even did some post-graduate work at Colorado State studying hydrology.

For the first 15 years of my career I was absolutely by God an engineer, working in hydrology. Then as any engineer is, they tend to throw you against the wall and make a manager out of you before you can go any higher.

ENR: What led you to the agency in the first place?

Keys: My dad worked for TVA for a long time. He started out as a labor foreman, then he was a truck driver foreman, then he was a concrete superintendent working on the locks and the powerplants on the Tennessee River for TV

In 1956 our family piled in the family sedan and went west for a two-week vacation and saw a lot of the facilities that Reclamation had, Buffalo Bill and Hoover [Dams] and some of the others.

When it time came to finish school, I wanted to work in engineering and my wife and I decided that we wanted to go West.

At the time that I graduated, it was really a great time to be an engineer, period, because everybody was hiring engineers. '64 was a boom time for engineers. I had several opportunities and decided [to go with] Reclamation….

As I was going through school we used a lot of the Reclamation manuals in our classes. Reclamation still has some of the best engineering manuals that folks use: the earth manual, the concrete manual, the hydraulic manual, hydrology.

I used that and saw the expertise that was there.

ENR: I was going to ask if your wife was from the West.

Keys: No, she's from Atlanta. We just decided that we wanted to have a change and went West. Never looked back.

ENR: Well, not 'never,' because here you are [in Washington, D.C.]

Keys: This is the West.

ENR: This is the West?

Keys: Reclamation is the West. I'm serious. Reclamation's the West and that's where I'm from. I just have to have an office to do part of my work. Reclamation is the West."

Look at the major population centers of the West. What are they built around? Every one of them's built around a Reclamation property. Boise, Idaho, Denver, Albuquerque. They're all built around Reclamation projects.

ENR: One of the things that had been happening at the Bureau was that it had been downsized.

Keys: We came down probably at least 2,000 people from where we were in the early '90s. [Reclamation's workforce now is about 5,750 people, of whom 60 to 70 are at headquarters].

ENR: Do you think you're going to kind of hold at this level?

Keys: I don’t see any reductions, big reductions. I don’t see any major reorganization because I believe in the way Reclamation is organized right now.

I would tell you that I think one of the challenges…is maintaining the technical expertise that we have and trying to get new folks into Reclamation that can keep us a vital organization….

What you try to do is attract the good, young folks. The challenge is to keep them. I tell you they can come to Reclamation right now and get experience like a person can't believe and they get it early. They don't have to sit there for 15 years doing diddly stuff. People who come into Reclamation now get thrown into the fray early….The challenge is to keep them because everybody wants them.

ENR: What would you say are your main priorities?

Keys: The first one is the Reclamation people, to be sure that our people understand that they are the water managers of the West and that they need to work with anybody that needs water from our project areas.

And a goal out of that is to try to squeeze a few more drops out of every one of our projects. If we can find 1% or 2% more water from every project we've got we can suuply a lot of new demands out there at the same time that we are honoring those contracts that we have and keeping our responsibilities under Endangered Species Act and NEPA and so forth.

ENR: How would you squeeze out that water--engineering methods, management?

Keys: All of the above. We can use water conservation. Many times, engineering is a solution. Look at your fish ladders and screens and the work that Reclamation is doing in the Yakima Basin, the Umatilla River Basin, the California area.

[Another priority] is our infrastructure. We have an aging infrastructure out there and the goal--absolutely you'd have to say it's even Number One--is the public safety around our infrastructure. Involved in that is safety of dams, the property [operations and maintenance] of facilities, managing it right.

Another goal is to maintain….the engineering and technical expertise that Reclamation has. It has gone down in the past. That reduction that we went through in the early 90s….it was traumatic for the Bureau. But the way we did it we felt was employee-friendly. We offered a buyout and a lot of people left. The good news is it was employee-friendly. The bad news is we lost a great deal of our most valuable people.

We're still trying to recover from that.

ENR: What can engineers, contractors and environmental groups expect from you?

Keys: The environmental people? We will work with you. We will work with you to provide the water that's necessary for environmental, endangered species, whatever issues. We will not do it at the expense of those folks who have contracted for the water. But we will work with them to find ways to manage the water differently to help accommodate their needs.

To the engineering people, the contractors, we still construct facilities as part of that water management strategy and they still need to watch for what's going on.

I don't believe in taking down good dams either. There are some that probably need to be taken out and I could give you some examples.

I can give you examples of ones that will not be taken out.

ENR: Such as?

Keys: Glen Canyon. I would oppose its removal vehemently.

ENR: What about Snake River [dams]? Are those Reclamation's

Keys: They're the Corps of Engineers', but I personally don't believe they should come out.

ENR: But some others should come out.

Keys: There are some old, broken-down ones that are doing more harm than they are good.

ENR: Why should Glen Canyon stay up?

Keys: If you look at that structure and what it provides to that part of the United States, its value outweighs many times whatever damage was done there. The recreation economy that's built around it, the power that it generates,t he water delivery capability that it allows in the lower Basin, just could not be replaced.

It's there and it needs to stay.

In considering philosophy of dams, if someone were to propose building Glen Canyon today, it might be a different story. In other words, the need for free-flowing rivers and what they might bring may be justification for not building it these days. You have to have a hard look. and the conditions are such now that it may not be as easy to get approved as it was before.

But it's there now and any thoughts of taking it down are, I think, just counterproductive.

I tell you, someone could say that that is old-time thinking, that it's getting mired in the old way of thinking. I absolutely disagree with that. I think that's modern thinking. I think the old thinking is thinking they can take it down and replace what was in Glen Canyon before. Can't happen.

ENR: You mean in terms of the ecosystem and so on…

Keys: That and in terms of the recreation. How would we replace the recreation that's built around Glen Canyon? ….And the water and the power.

I have run the Grand Canyon on a raft several times and what an experience! Can you imagine trying to do that in its original state? I can't.