State cloud-seeding plan scrutinized
Officials with the Colorado Water Conservation Board say they will carefully weigh public input before making a decision on whether to issue a permit for the state’s biggest-ever cloud-seeding operation, but some basic questions remain unanswered first and foremost, whether it works.Denver Water, along with several partnering entities, is preparing to spend $700,000 to develop a network of 41 cloud-seeding stations with the aim of boosting snowfall and runoff in most of the drainages emanating from the central mountains of Colorado. Keystone and Winter Park have agreed to participate in the program, and Denver Water Board manager Chips Barry says he is still negotiating with Breckenridge and some other resorts. Vail Resorts, a leader in the cloud-seeding arena for years, owns Keystone and Breckenridge.The hope is to increase the snowpack by 10 to 20 percent, gaining up to 50,000 acre-feet of water, at a cost of about $10 to $23 per acre-foot. That’s much less than it would cost to build new storage facilities or to purchase additional water rights, from agricultural interests, for example.But proponents of the project could not say at the hearing exactly how many thousands of acres or square miles of land would be affected, exactly where the generators will be placed or how many pounds, gallons or tons of silver iodide will be used during the course of the five-month cloud-seeding season.Studies submitted in support of the project indicate there are no harmful environmental consequences. The silver iodide itself remains inert without ever breaking down into its constituent components. "It doesn’t interact with the environment," says Larry Hjermstad, the Durango-based weather modification consultant who is in charge of the operation. "The silver iodide particles simply end up as tiny grains of dust."Other studies, submitted to disclose impacts on wildlife, show that the effects of cloud-seeding on snowfall and snowpack remain within a natural range of variability, concluding there is not significant adverse impact to plants or animals.There is still plenty of debate as to whether cloud seeding actually works, and some officials hope this project may answer some of those questions. The intent is to establish a thorough monitoring program to try and measure any increase in snowfall by comparing accumulations in the project area with nearby "control" areas. Hjermstad says a network of automated Snotel measuring stations administered by the Natural Resources Soil and Conservation Service would be used to gather data.According to Hjermstad, the silver-iodide generators would be spread about five to eight miles apart, about 20 miles upwind of the target areas. He says the plume of silver iodide spreads to about five to eight miles in width in that distance to achieve blanket coverage.The generators would be spread across the mountains from around Fairplay and Leadville up through the Breckenridge and Vail area, as far north and west as Winter Park and Hot Sulphur Springs.Although most of the increased runoff apparently would be on national forest lands, the Forest Service was not represented at the hearing, and there has not yet been any formal contact between the agency and the state officials in charge of administering the permit. One federal official wondered what kind of outcry it would trigger if the Forest Service announced it intended to pursue some kind of action that could affect tens of thousands of acres of state or private lands without first consulting state authorities."The Forest Service generally does not get involved in state permitting issues," says Joe Busto, the water resource technician in charge of the hearing, but adds he would solicit comments from the federal government during the permitting process.Acting White River National Forest Supervisor Steve Deitemeyer says the Forest Service has been dealing with cloud-seeding issues for several years and has not identified any significant issues that would raise environmental concerns. He says there might be a possibility that some of the generators could be placed on Forest Service land, requiring some sort of federal permitting process.Some citizens who testified at the hearing questioned the fundamental wisdom of trying to manipulate nature. A better path might be more of an emphasis on conservation and demand management, says Justin McCarthy, a Green Party candidate for county commissioner in Summit County. Cloud seeding doesn’t address the root of the problem, which is consumption, according to McCarthy.Emergency medical care officials also expressed concern about the potential for more accidents on the state’s highways, noting that statistics already show a correlation between snowfall and highway accidents.
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