WASHINGTON — On a voice vote, the Senate Thursday confirmed Utahn John W. Keys III as the new commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.

Keys, 59, a resident of Moab, retired three years ago after working 34 years for the Bureau of Reclamation, which he will now return to head.

Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton praised his confirmation, along with several other Interior officials approved Thursday, including Fran Mainella as the new National Park Service director.

"We are fostering an environment that listens to local concerns, makes responsible decisions and is committed to stewardship of our precious lands for the sake of our children and the future generations of Americans," Norton said.

At confirmation hearings last month, Keys — who has worked part time in recent years as a college football referee for the Big Sky Conference — pledged also to be a fair referee in fights over water in the West.

Keys said challenges there include serving competing needs of municipal water users "whose demands continue to increase," needs of irrigators, "increasing demands for hydroelectric power generation" and increasing demands for "instream flow" to protect endangered species, fish, recreation and water quality.

He said, "I believe that I can work with all of the water users around Bureau of Reclamation projects to meet those challenges."

Keys said he spent the past 18 years of his Bureau of Reclamation service in the Pacific Northwest, where he was its regional director and assistant director, working with state officials, tribes, Congress, environmentalists and water user groups to resolve conflicts.

"I believe that I can bring that same cooperative spirit and attitude to the Bureau of Reclamation for its future work throughout the Western United States," he said.

Keys received a bachelor's degree in civil engineering in 1964 from Georgia Tech. He received a master's degree from Brigham Young University in 1964.

He began working for the bureau in 1964, first taking a job to help build the Central Utah Project. He also worked for the bureau in North Dakota, Montana, Colorado, Idaho and Washington, D.C., before retiring in 1998.

The Bureau of Reclamation is a water management agency best known for building dams, power plants and canals throughout the 17 Western states. It constructed more than 600 dams, including Flaming Gorge and Glen Canyon dams.

The bureau is the largest wholesaler of water in the country. It brings water to more than 31 million people, and supplies one of every five Western farmers with water. That helps irrigate 10 million acres, producing 60 percent of the nation's vegetables and 25 percent of its fruit and nuts.

The Bureau of Reclamation is also the second largest producer of hydroelectricity in the West. Its 58 power plants produce 40 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, enough to supply the needs of 6 million homes.


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