Vail Resorts’ cancellation of cloud seeding this winter could mean less water in streams

Scenes from the Seeded and Natural Orographic Wintertime Clouds: The Idaho Experiment (SNOWIE) project, which was undertaken in Idaho’s Payette Basin in winter 2017. (Credit: Joshua Aikins)

By Heather Sackett

Due to budget shortfalls, Vail Resorts has pulled this winter’s funding for its cloud seeding program — the longest-running in the state at 44 years — potentially reducing the amount of water flowing down the Colorado River this spring.

According to a November report from Colorado Water Conservation Board Director Rebecca Mitchell, due to economic challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Vail Resorts was forced to suspend all funding for cloud seeding for the 2020-21 season. This has resulted in a $300,000 loss of funding for cloud seeding activities over the central Rocky Mountains.

While this is bad news for skiers, it also means a challenge for western water managers who count on cloud seeding to increase water supplies by increasing snowfall in the mountainous headwaters of the Colorado River and its tributaries. While ski resorts tend to focus their cloud seeding on increasing early-season snow, water managers tend to choose the best storms throughout the season and boost those.

According to Mitchell’s report, the loss of Vail’s cloud seeding program severely reduces the ability to augment and increase water supplies.

“This recent decision has put managers of the CCMRB in a very difficult position as they endeavor to meet the needs of drought recovery,” Mitchell’s report reads.

Vail Resorts did not respond to requests for comment.

Colorado water managers and ski resorts use remote cloud seeding generators like this one to boost a storm’s snowfall. This year Vail Resorts cut its $300,000 program, leaving some water managers worried it could result in decreased snowpack and streamflows.

Colorado water managers and ski resorts use remote cloud seeding generators like this one to boost a storm’s snowfall. This year Vail Resorts cut its $300,000 program, leaving some water managers worried it could result in decreased snowpack and streamflows. (Credit: Western Weather Consultants)

‘A significant loss’

Cloud seeding uses a network of ground-based generators throughout the permit area to disperse silver iodide particles into clouds, where ice crystals form on them and fall to the ground as snow. Colorado ski areas and water managers on both the Western Slope and Front Range have been using cloud seeding for decades to enhance snowpack and streamflows. The cloud seed generators in the CCMRB area are operated by Durango-based Western Weather Consultants.

Water managers see cloud seeding as an important tool for increasing water supply in times of drought. A study released earlier this year proved that cloud seeding can boost snowfall across a wide area under the right conditions. Weather modification programs were one of the elements included in the Drought Contingency Plan, signed by the Colorado River basin states in 2018.

“It’s one of the few ways to physically increase water supplies,” said Dave Kanzer, deputy chief engineer for the Colorado River Water Conservation District. “This is one of the legs of the stool. When we are looking at supply and demand, this is the supply side.”

Kanzer said that a statistical comparison over 15 years shows a 2-5% annual increase in snowfall in basins that use cloud seeding over those that don’t. Although it’s difficult to determine the exact amount of extra snow that cloud seeding generates, it could equal up to 80,000 acre-feet of water within the CCMRB permit area, Kanzer said.

Since Vail’s program represents about half of this, one could expect any snow and water generated to also decrease by half this year.

“We have lost about half of our effectiveness,” Kanzer said. “It’s a significant loss to cloud seeding within our permit area.”

The CCMRB program has an annual budget of about $220,000 to $250,000, Kanzer said, with contributions from the River District, the CWCB, the Front Range Water Council and districts in the lower basin that supply water.

CWCB officials say they are still trying to find replacement funding and have been talking with Front Range water providers, including Denver Water. Spokesperson Todd Hartman said Denver Water currently provides $12,400 as part of the Front Range Water Council’s $70,000 contribution.

“The FRWC and Denver Water are aware of the reduction from Vail and members are discussing how and whether to address that,” Hartman said in an email.

Three water providers in the lower basin states — Central Arizona Water Conservation District, Southern Nevada Water Authority and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California — contributed $438,000 this year to cloud seeding programs across the upper basin, which also includes Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico.

CWCB Weather Modification Program Manager Andrew Rickert said it’s still too early in the season to know how Vail’s move might affect snowpack and streamflows.

“We just have no idea what kind of season we could have in front of us,” Rickert said. “We could have storms that are efficient enough not to need cloud seeding. It’s really just up in the air as to how this is going to affect water supplies for next year.”

Aspen Journalism is a local, nonprofit, investigative news organization covering water and rivers in collaboration with The Vail Daily and other Swift Communications newspapers. This story ran in the Nov. 28 edition of The Vail Daily and the Nov. 30 edition of The Aspen Times.

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