MEAD, ELWOOD (1858-1936)
Elwood Mead was born on a farm near Patriot, Indiana, on January 16, 1858, and was educated at Purdue University. He would go on to write the laws (though they were seldom adopted in full) that became the late-nineteenth-century model for water management in Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states. Mead ended his career as commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Mead first became interested in irrigation in Colorado when he taught math and physics at Fort Collins in 1882. He was appointed assistant state engineer in 1885. Three years later he became the first territorial engineer of Wyoming. In 1889–90, at the age of thirty-one, Mead wrote the water law in the constitution and statutes for the new state of Wyoming, aiming to avoid other western states' mistakes and create a new system of active state ownership and supervision of water. Mead believed water law could foster strong agricultural communities, and he sought to eliminate speculation in water rights. Under Mead's system, putting water to use and filing a claim could not create a legal right to use water, as had been the case in most of the West. He required water users to obtain state permits; the permits could be denied if a project was deemed unwise. A panel of engineers served as the primary tribunal in matters of establishment, loss, and change of water rights. Water rights were tied to actual use on designated land to avoid speculation, a concern that means cautious analysis of transfers of water rights in Wyoming even today.
Mead's system was influential throughout the Great Plains, Rocky Mountains, and Canada. Nebraska adopted the entire system; most states (for example, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and South Dakota) balked at supplanting judges with engineers and adopted only the permit system portion.
Mead left Wyoming in 1898 for a career in what he called social engineering–designing irrigation colonies and promoting rural settlement programs in Australia, California, and Washington State. He became commissioner of the Bureau of Reclamation in 1924. He later mentored New Dealers on rural community building and masterminded the Hoover Dam (creating his giant namesake Lake Mead) on the Colorado River. Mead died in Washington DC on January 16, 1936.
Gordon W. Fassett Cheyenne, Wyoming Anne MacKinnon Casper, Wyoming
Kluger, James R. Turning on Water with a Shovel: The Career of Elwood Mead. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
Mead, Elwood. Papers, 1900–42. Water Resources Center Archives, University of California, Berkeley.