The federal government finally entered the irrigation business in 1902, after it became clear that large infusions of public funds were needed to build projects big enough to be effective in the arid West. The eventual result was a dozen dams across Wyoming, but crop agriculture here remains scarce.
In 1869 and 1871, John Wesley Powell led two expeditions from Wyoming Territory down the Green and Colorado rivers. These and other explorations brought him to a profound understanding of how the West’s aridity limits its economic prospects. He directed the U.S. Geological Survey from 1881-1894, and his ideas still affect land and water policy today.
Delegates to Wyoming’s Constitutional Convention had to work quickly in 1889 to get a constitution adopted while Congress was still in session. Still, they managed to adopt some innovative ideas, especially in water law. The biggest stumbling block to statehood, in Congressional debate the following year turned out to be whether Wyoming had enough people. It was a close call.
Elwood Mead was only 30 in 1888 when Territorial Gov. Thomas Moonlight hired him to bring order to Wyoming’s water law. As territorial engineer Mead did just that, and his ideas were written into the state constitution adopted in 1890. Mead spent only 11 years in Wyoming, but all his life carried with him what he learned in the state.