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By 2050, projections indicate there will be an 18 percent gap between how much water farmers in the North Platte River Basin need and what its namesake tributary provides. So the Jackson County Water Conservancy District, whose borders sit within the northern Colorado basin, turned to something that sounds like science fiction: changing the weather. By seeding storm clouds with silver iodide, professionals can wring more snow from them. And two years after joining a Wyoming-run program designed to do just that, the district recorded a snowpack with a billion more gallons of water than its annual average, says district president Jim Baller.
Cloud seeding dates to the 1950s, and Colorado has been experimenting with the process almost from the start. Today, there are seven initiatives permitted under Colorado’s Weather Modification Program that together cover the state’s seven mountain ranges. But even as cloud seeding expanded across Colorado, critics argued over its effectiveness; figuring out if an increase is a result of the seeding, or is simply natural, is a difficult task.
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In 2017, thanks to a confluence of ideal conditions (no natural precipitation) in the skies above Idaho and funding from the National Science Foundation, a team led by University of Colorado Boulder professor Katja Friedrich became the first researchers to track the entire process from seed to snow, proving that cloud seeding works in the wild. (Despite ecological concerns, Friedrich says silver levels likely aren’t high enough to do harm.) Weather modification has since become a tenet of 2019’s Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP)—which is about to get millions in funding to battle historic drought conditions.
The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law this past November, allocates $50 million to help Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico implement their portions of the DCP. How those states will split that pie between weather modification and the other pillars of the plan—flow management and conservation—has not yet been decided. But entities in Colorado could use the extra money.
This winter, Jackson County launched its own ground-based program. The results are promising: As of January 2022, the North Platte River Basin’s snowpack was 37 percent greater than normal. But the district doesn’t have the budget to pay the $60,000 annual price tag past 2022. Vail Resorts suspended its own seeding program in 2020 amid a pandemic-induced revenue drop, and the Broomfield-based company wants help picking up the $300,000 tab before restarting it. “Everybody’s looking for additional funding,” says Andrew Rickert, the Colorado Water Conservation Board’s weather modification program manager. Now, there’s a snowball’s chance of getting some.
How Cloud Seeding Works
- Moist air cools as it rises over mountains, creating clouds filled with supercooled droplets.
- A ground generator or an air- plane releases a heated silver iodide solution into the cloud.
- The silver iodide acts as a nucleus—basically, a foundation—for ice crystals to form around.
- Ice crystals grow, eventually becoming snowflakes heavy enough to fall to the ground.