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Xeric Thoughts: Elwood Who?

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Elwood Blues may be the best-known Elwood out there. However, Elwood Mead may be the most important to us in Wyoming. 

If our present Governor is related to Elwood, I haven’t found the link. Elwood lived from January 1858 through January 1936. In a time when many rarely left the county they were born in, Elwood got around. He was born in Indiana, earned a B.S. from Purdue 1882 and received a doctorate from Iowa State College in Civil Engineering a year later. Then, in 1883 he moved to teach math at Colorado College of Agriculture, today’s CSU. 

Being close to Wyoming, he got involved in politics, and in 1888 he became the first territorial/state engineer for Wyoming. He also took on the responsibility of not only drafting our water laws but those of Colorado, as well. I can’t help but wonder at the influences that ended up creating two very different standards. 

In 1907 he moved on to Australia and became chairman of the water management for the state of Victoria. Returning in 1911 to California, he became a professor at the University of California. 

In 1924 he was appointed chairman of the Bureau of Reclamation under President Calvin Coolidge. He made two trips to Palestine to assist in designing a still-working irrigation system. While at the Bureau of Reclamation he over saw the development of all the major irrigation systems in our West and the dams that feed them – the Hoover, Grand Coulee and Owyhee Dams. Lake Mead, above Hoover Dam, was eventually named in honor of Elwood.

This very special man had the ability to see that Wyoming was at the head of every major watershed west of the Mississippi and that the downstream demands would be enormous. His answer to a future rife with deals to siphon off the water originating in Wyoming was to attach the water rights to the land. With a small population and an often-absentee ownership, Wyoming was vulnerable to those downstream demands that might otherwise overwhelm a system of landowner approval for water distribution. 

Parts of Colorado are a great example of what not to do. South of Limon on Highway 71 near Punkin Center and down around Ordway and Rocky Ford you can see prosperous farms with fine crops of onions and other vegetables, as well as hay and dairy pastures. At one time, this area was sugar beet central. Interspersed among the bright green farms are the skeletons of equally prosperous farms that, for various reasons, fell to the seduction of one-time money from the municipalities of Colorado Springs and Pueblo. There is no water in the Arkansas River or the Colorado Canal to revive these dry, dustbin stretches of once-abundant land. It has been sold off. 

Downstream from Wyoming, the thirst is still there. Nevada, particularly Las Vegas, Arizona and southern California, all with armies of lawyers with checkbooks, are looking at the Green River. How many dollars has Nebraska spent trying to tie up Platte River water? All the managing agencies and states on the Missouri River keep a close eye on Wyoming and its water. There are schemes to shift Little Snake water to Denver. The Belle Fourche and the Little Missouri have been in the news lately. And thanks to Elwood Mead, this flowing lifeblood that allows agriculture to endure in Wyoming has legal protection for all of us by being attached to the land. Elwood may not have lived here much, but he is truly a Wyoming hero.

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