Elwood Mead, Arid Land Cession, and the Creation of the Wyoming System of Water Rights

Document Type


Journal/Book Title/Conference

Annals of Wyoming: The Wyoming History Journal


Wyoming State Historical Society

Publication Date

Summer 2005


Those acquainted with Wyoming history know that Elwood Mead was Wyoming's first territorial engineer and the father of the "Wyoming System" of water rights. This system has been widely praised as a progressive model and all the Western states, in one form or another, have copied it. Even today, Wyoming's water laws are based on the foundation Mead built during his time in the state from 1888 to 1899. Mead's system has promoted irrigation development and limited expensive litigation for farmers and ranchers. Although Wyoming has less agriculture than its neighboring states of Colorado and Nebraska, this is a result of a short growing season and limited markets and not a flawed legal system. There is more, however, to the story. For Mead, the Wyoming system was supposed to be the opening shot in a war on, what he considered to be, misguided federal land laws.