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Lawmakers OK $2 million for cloud seeding program

A mass of puffy white clouds swirls against the deep blue sky.
David Dudley
Wyoming Public Media
April clouds swirl over Cheyenne

Scientists, water officials and other civic leaders believe seeding the clouds can help Wyoming augment its water stores as drought, or what some scientists call aridification, continues.

During the final days of the budget session, lawmakers gave $2 million to the Wyoming Water Development Office to fund its cloud seeding program. They hope it will help mitigate the impacts of ongoing drought in the Western U.S.

Rep. Jon Conrad (R-Mountain View) advocated for the program during the budget session. He urged his peers to do whatever they can to ensure that the state has enough water as upper and lower basin states clash over their use of the Colorado River. As the conflict intensifies, he said, the program is an asset.

"We know that cloud seeding has a positive impact upon snowpack, precipitation and streamflow," said Conrad. "With the challenges that exist with our current climate, meteorological conditions and the loss of needed precipitation to sustain agriculture, etc., cloud seeding is a viable tool that continues to improve."

Where did the snowpack go?

Dr. Bryan Shuman is a professor with the Department of Geology and Geophysics at the University of Wyoming. His research expertise is in how climate change has impacted drought and water resources, and ecological processes throughout Wyoming.

He said since the 1950s, Wyoming has seen a significant drop in snowfall and snowpack.

"Northwest Wyoming is the headwaters region that feeds the Colorado River," Shuman told Wyoming Public Media. "In the 1950s, that area saw 100 inches of snow per year. Since then, it's dropped by 24 inches."

There's been a drop in overall precipitation, but rain also runs off of soil more quickly, or it evaporates, so it doesn't always make it into the groundwater or reservoirs. That's why snowpack is so important where water is concerned. It's also one of the reasons that cloud seeding targets clouds that may produce snow.

Cloud seeding uses silver iodide to enhance ice crystal production within clouds. As the ice crystals grow, they become snowflakes that eventually fall to the ground, leading to more water. The conditions needed to do so occur between November and April each year.

Is cloud seeding a viable solution?

The program was launched in the Wind River Mountain Range in 2014. Since then, it has expanded to include the Medicine Bow and Sierra Madre Ranges.

Dr. Jeff French is an associate professor with the Department of Atmospheric Science at the University of Wyoming. His expertise is in precipitation and the physics of clouds.

Some of his recent research focuses on the impacts of cloud seeding on precipitation, and he's enthusiastic about the possibilities.

"We can see somewhere between a two and eight percent increase in snowpack when cloud seeding is used," French said. "But we've got to be careful. It's a process that mitigates what we're seeing with drought and climate change. It's not going to make those problems go away."

One of the solutions, French said, is for local, state and federal officials to diversify their approaches to the broader problems of drought and rising temperatures.

"No matter what you believe, the evidence shows that the planet is getting warmer," French said. "Ever since the West was settled, demand for water has outstripped supply. We need to come up with as many strategies as we can to increase supply, while decreasing demand. Cloud seeding is just one of those strategies."

The funds will support the program through 2026.

This reporting was made possible by a grant from the Corporation For Public Broadcasting, supporting state government coverage in the state. Wyoming Public Media and Jackson Hole Community Radio are partnering to cover state issues both on air and online.

David Dudley is an award-winning journalist who has written for The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, High Country News, WyoFile, and the Wyoming Truth, among many others. David was a Guggenheim Crime in America Fellow at John Jay College from 2020-2023. During the past 10 years, David has covered city and state government, business, economics and public safety beats for various publications. He lives in Cheyenne with his family.
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