“It’s something that doesn’t happen very often”
It may be coincidence, but a few days of warmth and sunshine this week followed the suspension of the local cloud seeding program. But just because the clouds aren’t getting pumped full of silver iodine doesn’t mean Crested Butte will be missing any March powder days, according to the program’s operator.
“There has been some concern about cloud seeding in light of the recent heavy snows,” Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District (UGRWCD) manager Frank Kugel told members of the board during a regular meeting on Monday, February 25. “The decision was made today to suspend the effort. They must have gotten that idea from me because I just mailed off my flood insurance application,” Kugel quipped.
The real reason the cloud seeding program was suspended, Kugel said, is because the current snow pack levels in the Gunnison Basin are in excess of criteria set by the state for cloud seeding operations.
The cloud seeding program (also known as weather modification) is conducted by North American Weather Consultants (NAWC).
In 2002, Gunnison County led the effort and became the major funding partner in the weather modification program, designed to increase snowfall and overall water supply to the basin. Other partners include Hinsdale County, the UGRWCD, water and sanitation districts within the county, the Gunnison Valley Stockgrowers Association, and downstream agencies that would benefit, such as the Uncompahgre Valley Water Users Group.
Each group has a specific financial commitment. This year’s total program cost was just above $90,000.
Cloud seeding in the Gunnison area is done with strategically placed generators on the ground, which operate during storms between November and April. The generators use propane gas to burn silver iodine into the atmosphere, which provides nuclei for moisture to gather around, creating snowflakes. According to NAWC, the compound is virtually untraceable in snow.
According to NAWC president Don Griffith, cloud seeding for the Crested Butte area has been on suspension since January 29. The town of Crested Butte falls in the northern portion of the service agreement, which includes mountainous areas above 9,000 feet to the north and east of Crested Butte.
Griffith says the decision was made on Monday to suspend the remainder of the cloud seeding program in the southern service area, which includes Monarch Pass, mountainous areas south of Gunnison and areas that are tributaries to the Gunnison River above Blue Mesa Reservoir.
Griffith says the company based its suspension decision on data gathered from SNOTEL snow pack monitoring sites, which are maintained by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). “These (suspensions) are predicated on measurements on the SNOTEL sites in the target area. If two or more are in excess the program is suspended in that area,” Griffith says.
The suspension criterion is measured by the snow water equivalent at the SNOTEL sites—a measurement of how much water is actually in the snow pack. As winter progresses, the criteria are dropped. For example, in January the suspension level is above 170 percent of average, in February it is above 160 percent, and in March it is above 150 percent.
According to Griffith, on January 29 there were two stations in the northern portion of the service area that were in excess of 170 percent of average.
Currently there are no SNOTEL sites in the southern portion exceeding the maximum, and Griffith says the decision to suspend cloud seeding in that area was based on six of the SNOTEL sites in the north in excess of 160 percent at the start of the week.
Kugel said the overall snow pack for the entire Gunnison basin is at 150 percent of average. “We’ve already gotten above what we normally get for the entire season,” he said.
UGRWCD board president Brett Redden reminded board members that while the water supply may be skyrocketing locally, there are some areas of the country still locked in drought, such as lower California and Arizona.
Redden said many Western water officials are hoping the abundant snowfall in Colorado will help fill Lake Powell and Lake Mead as part of an inter-basin compact that assures water for people further downstream along the Colorado River. “Just because we have a lot of water doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods,” Redden said.
Griffith says it may be possible to continue operations sometime later in the season, since the cloud seeding contract runs until April 15.
In a letter to the program’s financial sponsors, Griffith writes, “We will monitor the snow pack percentage to see if the percentage begins dropping below the state suspension criteria to the point that resumption of could seeding activities may again appear feasible.”
And even though the silver iodine generators are off for the moment, Griffith says it is still possible for Crested Butte to get hit by some big snowstorms. He says the cloud seeding program is most effective on weak storms that would usually have trouble producing precipitation, but if a big whopper of a storm (like the ones that hit in December and January) rolls through, Griffin says Mother Nature will still provide abundant powder.
If the program is suspended for the remainder of the winter season, Griffin says a pro-rated refund may be available, but the details are being worked out. “It’s a gray area on the contract. We’ve been talking to project sponsors about it,” Griffith says of a refund. “It’s something that doesn’t happen very often. We’re kind of breaking new ground this year, so to speak.”