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The need for seed

Bob Berwyn

After a couple of below-par snowfall seasons, many Colorado skiers are salivating at the idea of widespread cloud seeding to enhance snowfall at several of the state’s ski areas and boost stream flows and reservoir levels next spring.As has been widely reported, Denver Water proposed the $700,000 scheme, triggering powder reveries in ski chat rooms across the Internet. But there are still a number of details to work out before anyone enjoys bonus face shots.Vail, of course, has been seeding clouds for years, and resort officials have said the practice can boost snowfall by 15 percent. Under the Denver Water proposal, a Durango-based cloud-seeding expert would set up additional stations that could be turned on when moisture-laden clouds pass overhead.Denver Water chief Chips Barry says his agency has had preliminary contacts with several ski resorts, and officials with Vail Resorts, Copper Mountain and Winter Park confirm that they will meet with Denver Water before the end of the month to explore the idea further.Barry says he initially approached Boyd Mitchell at Keystone to discuss how Denver Water and the ski areas could work together toward a mutually beneficial goal.&quotWe’re looking for financial support,&quot Barry says. &quotI can’t say that we’re going to resolve the question of how to allocate the costs. This raises some fascinating philosophical and moral questions,&quot Barry continues, explaining that it’s difficult to figure out exactly who is benefiting and by how much. In other words, even though a ski resort or a water district might contribute a given amount toward cloud seeding, there is no guarantee that entity will actually reap any reward.Other Front Range jurisdictions may also participate, paying a share of the cost based on population. Several municipalities and water districts have expressed interest in the project, while Boulder officials say they will study potential environmental implications before signing on.Cloud seeding has been commonly used in dry areas, including parts of Colorado, Utah, Nevada and Australia. In most cases, ground-based generators are used to send particles of silver iodide into the passing clouds. Super-cooled vapor droplets crystallize around the particles until they are heavy enough to fall to the ground as snow. According to some estimates, only 1 to 2 percent of the moisture in the atmosphere falls as precipitation.Some experts are convinced the process works, while other studies report there is no conclusive evidence one way or the other. Barry acknowledges that the plan doesn’t represent a sure thing, but says that, given the unprecedented low water levels, it’s worth a try.&quotYou can’t make sure of anything,&quot Barry says. &quotAll you can do is turn on the generators when the conditions are right.”At Vail Resorts, spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga confirms that senior vice president of special projects Paul Testwuide will talk the plan over with Denver Water experts.&quotPaul is going to be interested to see what kind of science Chip has,&quot Ladyga says. Vail wants to know what the plan is, and Ladyga says it’s still too early to tell if the company fits into that.In Summit County, some locals say it’s high time to launch a cloud-seeding effort. In recent years, there have been accusations that Vail’s program is stealing moisture from the local mountains. County Commissioner Tom Long says those charges triggered a forum. Eventually, a panel of water experts concluded it was unlikely that Vail’s cloud seeding has any impact on precipitation in Summit County.Long says that, in the past, Winter Park set up a cloud-seeding station on his family ranch in the Lower Blue. &quotI think it’s a little like witchcraft,&quot he says with a laugh. &quotYou’re never going to change the weather patterns, but you can enhance the precipitation if you’re in the right spot. Long says that, in the case of Vail, the resort and the cloud-seeding expert have had years to fine-tune their setup to achieve the best possible results.But he says there could be another reason Denver Water is considering this idea. The agency might want to try and counter-act the perception that it didn’t plan or prepare well for the current drought and that it’s powerless to do anything other than restrict water use.If there is plenty of snow next winter, Denver Water can take at least partial credit, and if not, well, the expectations probably aren’t too high.Meanwhile, Forest Service officials are also scratching their heads, wondering whether the proposal needs any scrutiny on their part. If it works as claimed, widespread cloud seeding could potentially increase snowfall, and subsequently runoff, across hundreds or even thousands of acres of national forest land.A Forest Service hydrologist with the White River National Forest says she is only starting to evaluate the idea and doesn’t know if the agency will get involved. A required state weather modification permit does include safeguards, including conditions that cloud seeding be stopped if snowpack levels cross certain percentage thresholds at various points during the winter.


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