Is Cloud Seeding Worth It?:
by John O'Connell, Staff writer
POCATELLO - Tom Barnes is in the midst of his 15th winter of watching for the perfect storm.
When it happens - on those occasions when the wind doesn't blow too hard, temperatures are frigid enough to produce snow and a large amount of precipitation appears eminent - he lights his portable propane burner.
He knows his machine is working, and that he's giving Mother Nature a helping hand, when the blue flame turns orange as it reacts with a cocktail intended to coax extra moisture from the sky.
Now it appears likely that state lawmakers will consider legislation to do on a larger scale what Barnes and ranchers and farmers in six Southeast Idaho counties have been doing for several years - seed the clouds.
Should the Legislature agree to pay a portion of the $240,000 needed to start a statewide cloud seeding program, it would begin with 40 generators. They're fueled by propane, and they emit a vapor made from burning a mixture of acetone and silver iodide.
Cloud seeding works because silver iodide has a similar crystalline structure to ice and will accumulate with liquid water colder than zero degrees Celsius until droplets become heavy enough to fall. Oneida, Franklin, Bear Lake, Bannock, Bingham and Caribou counties split the roughly $25,000 cost of running their cooperative cloud seeding effort.
According to figures provided by Bannock County Commissioner Jim Guthrie, cloud seeding can augment snowfall by between 8 and 20 percent.
"Being a county commissioner, you have to take the advice and expertise of scientists," Guthrie said. "When you look at spending $25,000 on watershed in Southeast Idaho, you don't have to enhance it much to get your money back and a whole bunch more."
In addition to the cost of the burners, acetone and silver iodide, farmers and ranchers scattered throughout the territory get paid a $150 annual stipend for running the cloud seeding machines.
So far this year, Barnes has lit his burner only a couple of times. His own alfalfa and barley fields see little benefit from his efforts, which do more to help snow pack several miles east of Downey in the Cottonwood drainage. But he notes that he's helped by cloud seeding done by farmers in Arbon Valley, Fort Hall and Inkom
"It looks like this week is going to be a good week for it," Barnes said. "I think it helps us. There are a lot of people who are a little skeptical, but I think it does. I'm a farmer, and I'm looking out for all the farmers."
Randy Morris, an Arimo rancher, has run his cloud seeding machine three times this year. He's in his fourth winter of participating in the program.
"I feel like they've done it enough from everything I've read that it does show benefits," Morris said. "I feel like if it does do some good, it's worth doing."
Idaho Power also runs a cloud seeding pilot program, entering its fourth winter. The project is based near Boise and is intended to create more snow to send runoff into Hells Canyon Reservoir, one of the utility's main sources of hydroelectricity.
Kevin Koester, a Lava Hot Springs farmer and rancher who oversaw the drafting of the state plan, believes water management and irrigation districts may be willing to contribute funds. He also believes additional fees on fishing licenses and boating and snowmobiling registrations should be considered as the activities would benefit from additional water. Koester said he created the plan, which will be used as the basis of draft legislation to submit to various groups and interested parties for review, in his former capacity as state director of the Idaho Association of Soil Conservation District.
Once it's finalized, Koester hopes Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, will introduce the bill.
"I think the proposal certainly has some merit," Koester said. "I'm hoping the legislature will get a chance to at least discuss it this term. I think this is the year to pursue that (proposal) with Idaho legislature given the surplus they're talking about in the budget."
Andrus has considered introducing cloud seeding legislation for the past two sessions.
"There are certain counties that already cloud seed. Why not pool the resources so you don't duplicate the services?"
However, he opted not to introduce the bill last year because he heard the concept had many detractors in the state House of Representatives.
Andrus said he'll make up his mind about whether or not to push the bill this session in coming weeks. He doubts he will.
Cloud seeding is only effective up to 30 miles from where silver iodide is emitted, Koester said.
A concern that's often raised regarding cloud seeding in Koester's experience is that it could be a way of robbing down-wind communities of precipitation.
Science, however, suggests otherwise, Koester said.
"That has never been documented," he said.
And Koester is confident statewide cloud seeding, would more than pay for itself.
"If you had 40 generators set up 30 miles between each generator and you increased water one inch for every acre, that's a significant amount of water that goes into the watershed," Koester said. "That's probably a conservative measurement."
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