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.
One of Wyoming’s early large-scale irrigation projects dates to the 1880s in what’s now Platte County, Wyoming and the county, organized in early 1913, still is perhaps best known for its reservoirs and recreation areas. The Oregon Trail ruts and Register Cliff near Guernsey serve as reminders of the pioneer heritage of the area and a coal-fired power plant near Wheatland provides jobs and economic stability.
Construction of Buffalo Bill Dam, completed in 1910 six miles west of Cody, Wyoming, was the key that opened about 90,000 acres in northwestern Wyoming to irrigated farming. Its construction was slowed by engineering difficulties and labor strife, but when it was finished stood as an engineering marvel, one of the first concrete arch dams built in the United States and the tallest dam in the world at the time.
Before Glendo Dam could be built on the North Platte River in Platte County, Wyoming, complicated water-rights disputes had to be settled among Wyoming, Nebraska and Colorado and the settlement approved by the U.S. Supreme Court. The process took more than a decade, and shows the difficulties of allocating water in the arid West. The earthfill dam, nearly 2,100 feet long and 190 feet high, was completed in the fall of 1957. It stores water for irrigation and recreation, controls floods, reduces sedimentation in the Guernsey reservoir downstream and produces hydropower.
Seminoe and Kortes dams, both located in a remote stretch of northern Carbon County, Wyo., were constructed in the 1930s and 1940s primarily for the production of hydropower. While power plants at both dams still generate electricity, the area is frequented by tourists, especially fishermen who travel to the renowned Miracle Mile, just downstream from Kortes Dam, to catch trout.
Boysen Dam, named for local businessman Asmus Boysen, was constructed on the Wind River in the 1940s to control flooding and to provide irrigation water for agricultural purposes. The dam was completed in early 1953 and its power plant continues to generate electricity today. Boysen Reservoir provides recreational opportunities as well.
Alcova Dam, a Bureau of Reclamation project, was completed in 1937. The reservoir opened in 1938 and a power plant was completed in 1955. The $20 million dam project didn’t achieve the high expectations of immense wealth that were forecast at the time of its inception, but continues to provide irrigation water for farmers and ranchers and generates hydropower for the area. Alcova Reservoir offers fishing, boating, camping and swimming opportunities for visitors.
Anchor Dam was built in the 1950s on upper Owl Creek in Wyoming’s Bighorn Basin. The bedrock under the reservoir site is porous, and the reservoir has never held much water. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation more than doubled its initial costs with subsequent mitigation efforts, which proved unsuccessful. The dam stands today high above a small pool of water.