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Cloud Seeding: Fight Over Western Water Moves To The Sky

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Utah Division of Water Resources
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Cloud seeding was first used in Utah in the 1950s.

With drought conditions reaching record proportions, the issue of water distribution in the West is only growing. Though cloud seeding hasn’t been proven to increase snowpack by that much, lower basin states have been putting money into the technology in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming with the hope of increasing the amount of water flowing into the Southwest. Though some see this as a good solution to the ongoing drought facing much of the West, others are skeptical about sending Utah water downstream.

Cloud seeding has been used to get a little extra snow to fall each year in Utah since the 1950s. But with less predictable and more extreme climate conditions, lower basin states including California and Nevada have started promoting seeding in places like Utah to increase the amount of water that eventually ends up in the Southwest. Though some see this as a good solution to the ongoing drought facing much of the west, others are skeptical about sending Utah water downstream.

Cloud seeding can be done from the ground or air. In some cases, when the weather is right, a silver iodide solution is burned to produce tiny particles around which snowflakes can form.

Todd Adams is deputy director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. He says a little increase can do a lot for a state.

"It increases the snowpack about 14 percent based on the latest statistics. We've taken a little less optimistic look, and said if we can increase the snowpack, let's say 10 percent, that equates to about 200 acre feet of water," Adams said.

Seeding is done in all 29 Utah counties, and Duchesne County has consistently been a place where seeding has been conducted. Just last month the Duchesne County Water Conservancy District renewed a contract for ground-based cloud seeding that has been in place since the 1990s.

The current agreement was not contentious, but a possible proposal by the lower basin states to the state of Utah was. Scott Wilson, general manager for the Water Conservancy District in Duchesne, says the proposal would allow for aerial cloud seeding in the area—which could increase precipitation in by 4 percent. Wilson fears this extra water that he considers to belong to Duchesne County would be lost downstream because of lack of reservoirs in the county.

"When a reservoir's full, and we spill that water downstream, then that water in essence bypasses Duchesne County, and when it's downstream, it's downstream."

Wilson says he is very concerned about what happens to the Colorado River, but says his primary concern is the water needs of Duschesne and Utah.

"We feel that we should take a look at our own constituents, and previous commitments made to our own political bodies before we become entangled if you will, by encumbering agreements downstream," Wilson said.

According to media reports, between 2006 and 2012 lower basin states spent around 500,000 dollars in Utah to seed clouds.

Wilson says no official proposal about the project has been made to him, but that the county would be willing to consider it if additional reservoir space was built.

"If we have the ability to better manage the water resources that are generated within Duchesne County, and capture that water at an elevation that would benefit our agencies, we would absolutely be interested in that. We would love to have that conversation with the state of Utah," he said.

Back at the division of water resources, Adams says in another agreement with the lower basin states, parts of Utah have extended the time they seed by about one month each year.