Dead in the water
State lost years while drought worsened
Cloud seeding in a desert state may seem like a no-brainer. But six years ago, the Nevada Legislature effectively shut down the state’s program.
Even at the time, it seemed shortsighted. When local officials learned of the decision, the Desert Research Institute—a scientific arm of the state—was already dismantling Sierra monitoring stations.
Washoe County Commissioner John Breternitz asked businesses and other officials to help keep the program going. DRI stopped taking the stations apart and sent out packets on the program. It had always raised money through grants and contributions to pay for some of the program. Now it had to find contributions to pay for all cloud seeding, the state having opted out.
The Truckee River Fund ponied up $150,000 and the Western Regional Water Commission gave $100,000 to seed the Truckee River Basin for three years (“No silver lining,” RN&R, Jan. 12, 2012). Similar arrangements in Southern Nevada were put together. The program has limped along since, as the 2009, 2011 and 2013 legislatures stiffed it. But the groups who have supported it financially are showing signs of pulling back from a program the state’s own legislature won’t support.
On March 31, the U.S. Drought Monitor found that 99 percent of Nevada was affected by drought of some level. We were unable to find out what the location of that 1 percent was, but an April 21 report by the Monitor said it had disappeared. The figure is now 100 percent (see box).
Now the lawmakers are considering buying back in. Senate Bill 423 would provide $500,000 for the Nevada Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to parcel out to “an agency of this state or any business entity or other group of persons with the necessary equipment, experience and ability to conduct successful cloud seeding operations.” Even if that measure passes, it would pay only part of the bill for the state’s cloud seeding program.
The state’s statutes contain a Weather Modification Research Law that requires Conservation and Natural Resources to “utilize to the fullest possible extent the facilities and technical resources of the Desert Research Institute of the Nevada System of Higher Education.” DRI has handled the state’s cloud seeding strategy for decades. DRI researchers Peter Wagner, William Gaskell, and John Latham and co-pilot Gordon Wicks were killed on a cloud seeding research flight on March 2, 1980.
Cloud seeding is strictly supplemental. The state always depended on its cloud seeding program to bump up the amount of snow from 2 to 10 percent in normal years. In drier years, the supplementary water it could produce was even more important but also more difficult to generate. There has to be something to seed. DRI stays prepared for breaks in winter weather patterns that provide storms that can be seeded. (There has been talk of using drones for cloud seeding, but the practice is plagued by timing and other problems.)
“Cloud seeding for snowfall is not something you do to get yourself out of a drought,” said DRI scientist Arlen Huggins in 2010 (“Let it snow,” RN&R, Nov. 18, 2010). “It’s something better done during a normal year when you have a normal frequency of storms and can add to the water level of storms throughout the season—helping water storage in years when you’re getting some precipitation rather than react to it when your reservoirs are dry.”
Thus, each of those three legislatures when the lawmakers left the problem to others was a missed opportunity. Cloud seeding is not a practice that should be done in spotty fashion. “If we had years of really high precipitation, we would divert the water and bank it, and during years of low flow, we would pull it back out and put it back in the river,” Humboldt River Basin Water Authority exec Michael Baughman told state legislators earlier this month. “It’d sure be nice to have the state involved in things like that.”
The state’s lack of involvement goes beyond cloud seeding. “We are very concerned that we do not have a comprehensive State of Nevada drought response management plan being developed,” Baughman said. The HRBWA raised $70,000 for cloud seeding in 2014.
In a later interview on the lag in state funding, Baughman said, “State-funded cloud seeding was kind of an institutionalized activity in our state, as it was in many states in our region, and when we got into the recession it went away. If you’re not having frequency of storms, there’s not as many opportunities to seed. It’s going to take years to make up what we’ve lost. I would just suggest that whenever we can start, [state funded seeding] is a tool we need to have back in our toolbox. We just have to reinstitutionalize it.”
The Southern Nevada Water Authority helps pay for cloud seeding in Colorado, as do agencies in Arizona and California, because most Colorado River water originates there. The Nevada Legislature does not contribute, though most of the state’s population benefits from Colorado River water.
The New York Times reported in December, “Much of the seven-state Colorado River basin is gripped by a hydrological drought, a long-term precipitation deficit that has slashed stream flows, soil moisture and groundwater levels. Experts say the drought is the worst in centuries. … A further 25-foot drop [in Lake Mead] would dry up one of two water intakes that supply 70 percent of Nevada’s population with water.”
When the Times published that report, Lake Mead was at about 1085.5 feet above sea level. At this writing, it is at 1080. When the Times reported, water in the lake was rising. But since the start of March, it has been on a sharp and steady decline and is now well below its December level. At this writing, Lake Mead is 38.73 percent full.
Drought conditions in Nevada (in percents of the state)
Abnormally dry 0.07
Moderate drought 13.26
Severe drought 37.55
Extreme drought 30.74
Exceptional drought 18.38
Source: U.S. Drought Monitor