Eagle County agencies help boost snowmaking funds
Both Western Slope and Front Range interests collaborate on cloud seeding program
We need more “juicy” clouds. If we get them, the Colorado River Water Conservation District is ready to try to squeeze more snow from those clouds, with some help from local water districts.
The Eagle River Water & Sanitation District and the Upper Eagle Regional Water Authority — separate entities with separate jobs — have together contributed up to $30,000 to the river district’s cloud seeding operations this season. The money will be paid out as needed for operations.
In all, the district and its partners — from both the Western Slope and the Front Range — will put about $300,000 into cloud seeding this season. That’s about $100,000 more than the district had to spend going into the winter.
The seeding budget used to be bigger. Vail Resorts before this season had long funded cloud seeding operations, to the tune of about $300,000 per year.
The resort company this season announced it was cutting its seeding operations due to belt-tightening in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dave Kanzer, the deputy chief engineer for the river district, recently updated the district’s board about the beefed-up efforts. The board agreed to provide funds for more seeding this season.
That state-permitted season runs from November through April and the intent in simple: put more snow on the mountains, which then turns into water in the Colorado River basin.
Kanzer said the river district and its partners in the Colorado River basin are part of several efforts that stretch virtually the north-to-south length of the Rocky Mountains through Colorado.
The right clouds
But seeding isn’t an automatic process.
It starts with the right clouds — juicy, wet clouds — along with the right temperatures and wind.
“Conditions have not been extremely favorable” so far this season, Kanzer said, adding that there’s hope for better conditions the rest of the winter. The intent is to wring out as much snowfall as possible from those clouds.
Cloud seeding depends on a few techniques to crank up the propane-fueled generators that shoot silver iodide crystals into the clouds. The idea is that water droplets in the clouds will grab those crystals. The droplets then become heavy enough to precipitate out as snow.
Kanzer noted that cloud seeding is used around the world to both enhance rainfall and suppress hail.
Some systems are automated, activated through satellite or cell phone signals. Those automated generators are often in remote areas. Before winter begins, the system vendor, Durango-based Western Weather Consultants, brings the remote generators what is intended to be a season’s worth supply of both propane and crystals.
Other generators are fired up by hand. That often requires someone physically starting the generator in the wee small hours of the night and very early morning.
As important as turning on the machines is, turning them off when conditions change is also critical.
“We have an army of folks” who work for the district’s cloud seeding vendor in the Colorado River basin, Kanzer said.
Kanzer noted that Vail Associates, the corporate precursor of Vail Resorts, was an early adopter of snowmaking to boost snowfall, starting in the 1970s. But for some time, it was unclear how well the technology worked.
Significant boost possible
That question was answered by a study from Idaho released in early 2020. That study determined that seeding could boost snowfall by 5% to 15% per storm.
Across the basin, that boost can be significant. According to data from the river district, seeding, combined with the right weather conditions, could add between 40,000 and 80,000 acre feet per season to the snowpack. To put that number in perspective, the capacity of Dillon Reservoir in Summit County is just more than 257,000 acre feet.
Eagle River Water & Sanitation District Water Resources Engineer Len Wright said other areas can see more benefits from seeding. It just depends on what areas are targeted.
Only certain areas are targeted. Wright said the area over Climax Mine atop Fremont Pass isn’t seeded. No one wants more snow over an open mine site.
Areas right around Interstate 70 also receive extra scrutiny, both due to highway runoff and the fact that it’s a bad idea to seed clouds that are already putting snow on the highway’s high passes.
The local funds are going only to seeding generators that will benefit the local snowpack. Other entities, including the river district and the Front Range Water Council, a group of Front Range water providers, take a more basin-wide approach.
While this year’s seeding effort got a boost from a wide variety of interests, it’s hoped that boost is only temporary.
“I hope we can restart (with Vail Resorts),” Kanzer said. I look forward to the time we can work hand in hand again.”
Cloud seeding “uses a propane-fired generator to send tiny particles of silver iodide into the sky. Winds lift the particles into the clouds where they attract water vapor, grow, and fall as snowflakes. Silver iodide is the industry standard material used in cloud seeding, and independent scientific studies have shown it to be environmentally safe to use for seeding operations.”