Harvey Johnson, born on a farm in rural Kansas in 1895, worked as a farmer, ditch company board member, machinery salesman, and city official in the Fort Collins area for over forty-five years. He served on many water boards and was active in irrigation in Northern Colorado. He became a board member of the Water Supply and Storage Company in 1936/1937, and served for fifty-four years until 1989. This included a long stint as president of the WSSC from 1962 until he retired in 1989. He served on the Fort Collins City Council, and was elected mayor in 1962, serving from 1963 to 1967.
Like many members of the WSSC board and shareholders, Johnson willingly participated in agriculture-to-urban water transfer in the 1960s and did not view the situation as a stark divide between urban and rural. In the 1960s, Fort Collins’ failure to acquire large, additional sources of water before demands and droughts taxed its system brought the city’s water needs to a crisis point. Forced to institute water rationing during the summer, Fort Collins looked ahead to a grim future. A group of several lawyers, including Albert Fischer, attorney for the WSSC, came to Harvey Johnson and asked him to run for mayor so that he could try and fix the city’s water problem. Johnson explained part of the problem in this way: “As the city took in a piece of ground, then the farmer, the developer, he took and cashed in on the water, and the city had a limited amount of water, expanding the usage until they ran themselves real short. So there were six lawyers who said, ‘We’re going to put you in there. You’re going to have to straighten up the water thing.” Johnson agreed and won the 1962 election, not for any political acumen he possessed but solely for his skills in the arena of water acquisition, developed over his tenure with the WSSC. Johnson acted immediately, forming a water board and strategizing the best ways for the city to accumulate water rights. During his mayoral appointment from 1963-1967, he started purchasing Colorado-Big Thompson water and instituted regulations that required anyone developing or annexing land to give 2-acre feet off the former farm to the city. Later, this was changed to 3-acre feet. The plan figured on three and a half homes per acre. It guaranteed a plentiful supply of water for Fort Collins.
Johnson did not appear to see any irony in his role as a farmer championing the water rights of the city. In fact, he became the president of the WSSC in 1962 in the midst of his mayoral campaign. He did lament the demise of agricultural lands, but he helped Fort Collins acquire the water rights that would allow it to keep growing and usurping farms. Perhaps for Johnson, and many others, the line between agriculture and urban became blurred into “place” and “home.” Fort Collins was and had been his home for most of his life. He was loyal to the place, straddling the often fuzzy boundary between the farm and the city. When queried in the 1970s about urban areas acquiring water that used to go to farms, Johnson said:
“The water should go to the city. Now we have do-gooders, and they just burn me up, saying ‘we’re going to build on this dry land, we’re going to build up here in the mountains, we’re going to save this good land.’ If they build up there, they are going to take the water, and they make dry land out of your farm down here. It’s so foolish. You might as well build on the good land if you’re going to take the water, cause you’re limited in the amount of water.” [1. Harvey Johnson interviewed by David McComb, December 20, 1973, Water Supply and Storage Company Collection, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University, Box 1, Folder 7.]
This quote suggests a strong measure of pragmatism on Johnson’s part, a recognition that although he might wish things were different, he knew he could not halt the rapid urbanization along the Front Range. Johnson had also been committed to ideals of progress his entire life and may have equated Fort Collins’ growth with progress, albeit in a different form than he preferred.[2. James E. Hansen II, “The Water Supply and Storage Company: A Century of Colorado Reclamation,” undated, in Water Supply and Storage Company Collection, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University; Harvey Johnson, interview by Don McMillen, Fort Collins, CO, September 6, 1974, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University, Box 1, Folder 8; Nicolai Kryloff, “Guide to the Papers of Harvey Johnson,” 2011, Water Resources Archive, Colorado State University, http://lib.colostate.edu/archives/findingaids/water/whgj.html.]