estevan lopez

Estevan López

Estevan López spent a dozen years managing water controversies in drought-prone New Mexico as director of the Interstate Stream Commission and the deputy state engineer.

That training was about the best anyone could get for managing the nation’s largest water wholesaler, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, said his longtime colleague, former state engineer John D’Antonio. The U.S. Senate confirmed López on Wednesday as the federal agency’s new commissioner.

D’Antonio worked closely with López, his deputy for nine years. “New Mexico is a sort of microcosm of the issues he will deal with at the federal level,” D’Antonio said by phone from his Albuquerque office at the Army Corps of Engineers.

In New Mexico, López dealt with tribal water rights, traditional acequias, interstate stream compacts, rivers that crossed state boundaries and battles over who had first dibs on the water. He’ll deal with all those issues on a larger scale as head of the Bureau of Reclamation.

D’Antonio said López is right for the job. “He’s very calm, very analytical and extremely smart,” D’Antonio said. “He has the perfect temperament to deal with highly volatile situations. He will cut through a lot of the emotion that is inherent in Western water issues.”

As commissioner, López will oversee a 112-year-old agency responsible for dams, hydroelectric power plants, reservoirs and canals the agency built in 17 states to foster development. He will oversee a $1 billion budget and more than 5,000 employees.

More than 31 million people and businesses in the West rely on water provided by 476 dams and 337 reservoirs maintained by the Bureau of Reclamation. The agency also takes care of 53 hydropower plants that generate 40 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity.

López, a Peñasco native, directed the Interstate Stream Commission under the administrations of both Gov. Susana Martinez and former Gov. Bill Richardson.

López worked as the Santa Fe County manager and director of the county’s land use and utilities departments before becoming the Interstate Stream Commission director in 2003. He earned undergraduate degrees in chemistry and petroleum engineering from the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology.

President Barack Obama nominated López to head the Bureau of Reclamation in March.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said López was the right choice to guide the bureau through a period of increased water and power demands in the West that are coupled with drought, climate change, endangered species concerns and decreasing water supplies.

“I am pleased the Senate has voted to confirm Estevan López to this important leadership post at the Interior Department,” Jewell said in a statement issued Wednesday morning. “Estevan is uniquely qualified to lead the Bureau of Reclamation.”

López will be filling the commissioner position held until March by Mike Connor, another New Mexican. Connor, who was the bureau’s commissioner for five years, was confirmed by the Senate as Jewell’s deputy secretary for the Department of the Interior. Connor said in a phone interview from his office that he’s “incredibly excited” to work with López, whose job will be increasingly tough if drought continues in the West.

California’s three-year drought is the worst in 1,200 years, according to a recent peer-reviewed study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The Bureau of Reclamation is focused on easing the water scarcity to farmers and cities it supplies through its day-to-day operations of reservoirs, Connor said.

Water woes also are felt on the Colorado River and its dwindling reservoirs, including Lake Mead. The river supplies water to Arizona, California, Nevada and Mexico. “The river is in the midst of 15-year drought,” Connor said. “The reservoirs are less than half full, and the predictions are that the situation won’t get better for long-term water supply.”

López is familiar with all those issues, Connor said.

López left his post as director of the Interstate Stream Commission at the tail end of a controversial water issue in New Mexico, as the commission prepared to vote on a diversion project for the Gila River. The commission approved the project recently under terms of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, making the state eligible for millions of dollars in federal funds. Many river advocates had lobbied hard against the diversion project, saying it would provide little water at a high cost. Farmers in southwestern New Mexico along the Gila lobbied for the diversion project.

Along with López and Connor, other New Mexicans confirmed to federal posts this year by the U.S. Senate include: Gloria Valencia-Weber as a member of the board of directors of the Legal Services Corporation; Norman C. Bay as member of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission; Damon Paul Martinez as the U.S. attorney for the District of New Mexico; France A. Cordova as director of the National Science Foundation; and Camilla Feibelman, Sierra Club Rio Grande Chapter director, as a trustee of the Morris K. and Stewart L. Udall Foundation.

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @stacimatlock.