Commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation: Who Is Estevan López?

Thursday, March 16, 2017
Estevan López

Estevan López, who worked on water issues in his native New Mexico for years, was put in charge of the Bureau of Reclamation in October 2014, and was confirmed as its commissioner on December 17 of that year. He served until Donald Trump took over the U.S. presidency on January 20, 2017. The Bureau of Reclamation is the largest wholesaler of water in the United States, responsible for operating 337 reservoirs and bringing water to more than 31 million people and thousands of farms. The bureau is also the second largest producer of hydroelectric power in the western United States, managing 53 power plants.

 

The son of small-time ranchers, López grew up in Peñasco, New Mexico. His educational background isn’t in water; instead, he earned B.S. degrees in chemistry and petroleum engineering from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in 1979. López’s early career was spent in the petroleum industry, in which he worked as an operations engineer and well supervisor for Arco Alaska.

 

But he returned to New Mexico and became an engineer for that state’s Public Utility Commission. He later went to work for Santa Fe County, first as utility department director, and then as land use director, and was later put in charge of both departments. From 2001 to 2003, he served as county manager.

 

López has long had close ties to water on an elemental level—before joining the federal government, he sat on the boards of several acequias, or community-owned irrigation systems in and around Peñasco. He was also the president of the Peñasco Domestic Water Users

Association.

 

In January 2003, then-Governor Bill Richardson (D) appointed López to lead New Mexico’s Interstate Stream Commission, which negotiates with other states about water management. Concurrently, he served as the deputy state engineer. Among the projects he worked on was a diversion of the Gila River. It created controversy in the state, with some residents strongly backing the project for its utility in irrigation, with others wanting the river to be kept wild. More recently, the project, which has been in the planning stage for years, has been scaled back. López was reappointed as commissioner by Gov. Susana Martinez (R) in 2011 and he held the post until joining the Bureau of Reclamation.

 

López and his colleagues in the Department of the Interior were working on a long-term plan to protect Lake Mead and prevent shortages of Colorado River water when Donald Trump was elected in November 2016. They weren’t able to finish the job and its future was in question as López left the Bureau as the new administration came in. The day before Trump’s inauguration, López did execute an agreement with the Gila River Indian Community to provide the community with $6 million in funding for water conservation in fiscal year 2017 to acquire water from Lake Mead.

 

López and his wife, Susana, have two adult children, Victoria and Juan.

-Steve Straehley

 

To Learn More:

Official Biography

Sharing Water, Building Relations: Managing and Transforming Water Conflict in the U.S. West (pdf)

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