Elwood Mead was born in Indiana in 1858. Raised on a farm, he loved rural life and was supportive of owner-occupied farms, as opposed to the tenant farming that was taking over in many rural areas. He studied agriculture at Purdue University before moving west to Colorado to teach. There he was first introduced to irrigation farming.
Mead returned east where he completed a graduate degree in civil engineering and studied law. Upon returning to Colorado, he became known as an expert on irrigation. Wyoming officials began consulting him on issues of water distribution and eventually appointed him territorial engineer in 1888. In 1890, when Wyoming became a state, Mead wrote its water code and devised a system to administer it. Mead’s innovations served as a model for most states in the American West as well as Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada.
According to Mead, distribution was a first step toward realizing the full potential of irrigation. After the water was divided, it had to be applied to the land. The law required that it be appropriated “for beneficial use,” which Mead regarded as more than a convenient application of water. It implied using the water in the most efficient manner for the most efficient results. The efficient use of water encompassed two ideas. From a social standpoint, it meant providing agricultural opportunities for small farmers, from an engineering standpoint it meant regulating the flow of streams to obtain maximum benefit from the available supply. In Wyoming, Mead sought to combine a small plot of irrigated land with a larger area of grazing so that more people would have a financial base to succeed as farmers. He wanted the federal lands in the West ceded to the states, who would lease them for grazing. The proceeds would be used to finance irrigation works needed to regulate the rivers for greatest effect.
In addition to his work in Colorado and Wyoming, Mead also worked in New Zealand for several years on projects involving community planning and irrigation and served as Commissioner of Reclamation in Washington, D.C. As Commissioner, he oversaw the construction of the Boulder (Hoover) Dam on the Colorado River.