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W.D. Farr Helped Shape Banking, Cattle Industries in American West

  • Brian Larson

Water is a precious commodity in the semi-arid climate of the Rocky Mountain West. Nowhere is that more evident than along the northeastern plains of Colorado, where grass and trees grow in areas that should be covered in desert sagebrush. And probably no one person is more responsible for bringing water to this thirsty landscape than William Daven Farr, better known as W.D.

"Everybody in northern Colorado that's dealt with water in the last half-century knows who W.D. is and has probably dealt with him in some form or another," says Brian Werner. He met W.D. Farr 25 years ago, when he began working for the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, which Farr headed. The state agency oversees the Colorado Big Thompson Project, the largest water diversion effort in the state.

A key component of the CBT is a three-meter wide, 21-kilometer long tunnel that runs through the mountains of Rocky Mountain National Park, bringing water from the Colorado River on the western slope to 30 cities and towns along the eastern plains, while irrigating more than 280 thousand hectares of cropland.

Werner says it's due to many past water pioneers - including three generations of the Farr family. "W.D. really grew up on this project," he explains, "helping his father, watching his father drum up support throughout northern Colorado for the Colorado-Big Thompson project."

Farr recalls the effort clearly. "We went from town to town and talked to the people," he says. "We had public meetings, told them about what we thought could happen and that it was the thing that we had to do if we were ever going to develop northern Colorado. If not, we were just going to be a second-rate farming community."

The seemingly impossible idea of bringing water across the continental divide can be traced back to the 1890s - but more than forty years would pass before technology and desperate times would catch up with one another - and W.D. Farr. "If we hadn't had the two things [drought and the economic depression] at the same time," he points out, "the Colorado Big Thompson project would never have been built."

Farr joined his family's sheep and lamb business in the early 1930's, just as irrigation ditches were running dry, withering crops and the dreams of those trying to make a living along the plains. As Farr recalls, Coloradoans were in desperate need of more water - even if it meant moving mountains or drilling through them to get it. "The only way it could be done was to go across the divide and bring water from the western slope. They didn't really know whether that was possible or not. Nobody knew," he admits.

And they wouldn't until the fall of 1934, when federal engineers surveying the area gave a green light to the project. Construction on the initial reservoir in the system began in 1938 after Colorado Senator Alva B. Adams convinced congress to fund the undertaking. Blasting through the mountains on the tunnel started two years later.

Teams worked from both the eastern and western slopes of the range. Farr remembers the public amazement. "Going from both sides with the kind of surveying equipment they had in those days, lots of people thought that the two tunnels wouldn't meet. But here they are [20 kilometers] long and they came within [4 centimeters]!"

Farr and others closely associated with the project gathered on June 23, 1947, to witness the first western slope water coming through the tunnel. Farr recalls they heard what initially sounded like the roar of a freight train. "And then, the biggest cloud of dust I ever saw came out of that tunnel ahead of the water. And it just covered us with dust. We were just filthy, our hats, our clothes." He describes the moment as one of the greatest thrills of his life. "They hugged each other, they kissed each other, they threw their hats up in the air. They did this for several minutes because the water was there, and we knew it was going to work." He says he'd never seen men so happy in his life, and never expects to again.

The 12 reservoirs, 5 power plants and 150 kilometers of canals within the CBT system were completed in 1957. Farr continued to influence state and western water policy during his 40 years as director of the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, before retiring in 1995.

Originally designed for fields of sugar beets, potatoes and corn, most of the water supplied by the Colorado Big-Thompson project today sustains the ever-growing number of people living in northern Colorado… people, according to Brian Werner, who wouldn't be there if not for the perseverance of W.D. Farr. "It's not the only reason we're here," he says, "but it's provided that stable, supplemental source of water that has provided for the kind of growth, the quality of growth that people like W.D. and others envisioned in the back in the 30s, 40s and 50s."

Among his many other honors over the years, W.D. Farr, now 96, was inducted last month into the Hall of Great Westerners in Oklahoma City. And the National Cattlemen's Foundation, which he once headed, has just introduced a scholarship in his name, for students pursuing graduate degrees in animal science. Both organizations praised Farr for his "vision … and dedication to improving agriculture, livestock and water development."

For his part, Farr says he always wanted to make things better. "I was never quite satisfied," he admits. "I thought everything could be improved."

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