AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar paid a visit to the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District on Tuesday after appearing at the Texas Panhandle Legislative Summit.
According to a release from Hegar’s office, the tour will include a handful of visits to water facilities across the state focused on topics such as desalination, aquifers, cloud seeding, surface water, canal systems, groundwater, and flood mitigation. During the visit to the PGCD, Hegar focused on the district’s weather modification efforts and discussed cloud seeding.
However, what is cloud seeding? How do its projects function, and how impactful is it as a water strategy? Further, why was the Comptroller talking about it?
What is cloud seeding?
Cloud seeding is a type of weather modification technique that is intended to improve a cloud’s ability to produce rain or snow. According to the Desert Research Institute, the process works by introducing particles into the atmosphere like dust or salts that water vapor can cling to as a base for precipitation, such as raindrops or snowflakes. This process can be completed by using ground-based generators or aircraft to release a compound, such as the often-used silver iodide, into the air.
As noted by the Texas Department of Licensing & Regulation, cloud seeding efforts can use aircraft to put seeding materials into clouds and turrets of growing thunderstorms in order to get storms to expand and process more water from the atmosphere. Those seeding materials can take the form of flares holding a compound like silver iodide which are then burned, mounted on the wings of an aircraft, or dropped out from the underside. Otherwise, ground operations like those run by the Desert Research Institute might burn seeding materials in order to get the compound at their cores up into the clouds or storm systems.
What does the PGCD have to do with it?
Environmental scientist Gregg Eckhardt, via EdwardsAquifer.net, noted that cloud seeding efforts in different areas of Texas have been ongoing since the early 1890s, though the process as it is known today began with Dr. Vincent J. Schaefer in 1946 via his work to create artificial clouds in a chilled chamber. Schaefer’s experimentation led to the “cold rain” or “static method” process of cloud seeding as well as the “warm rain” process, which both focus on adding particles to the air that can offer a base for precipitation like raindrops and snowflakes to use to form.
After Schaefer’s discoveries, a range of independent researchers, businesses, and government agencies continued to develop cloud seeding as a weather modification process. In Texas, the Southwest Research Institute undertook rainmaking ventures as early as 1947, and rainmaking programs were made and otherwise funded by water management entities up through the current year. As noted in a release from Hegar, the Panhandle Groundwater Conservation District hosts one of five cloud seeding programs in the state.
“To help supplement the Texas water supply, some areas of the state are using periodic cloud seeding attempts to increase rainfall.” said Hegar, “The PGCD conducts cloud seeding operations to augment groundwater recharge over the Ogallala Aquifer. This is a target area of nearly 4.1 million acres in the eastern sector of the Texas Panhandle, which allows access to cloud systems moving out of Oklahoma.”
According to the PGCD, the target area for its program includes Carson, Gray, Wheeler, Armstrong, Donley, Roberts, and portions of Hemphill, Potter, and Hutchinson counties.
The PGCD said that the program employs a meteorologist to run the operations from White Deer and two plots to operate the involved airplanes, which are located at the Tradewinds Airport in Amarillo.
According to TDLR, the other Texas rain enhancement projects conducted during 2022 include those run by the West Texas Weather Modification Association, the South Texas Weather Modification Association, the Trans Pecos Weather Modification Association, and the Rolling Plains Water Enhancement Project.
How is it funded?
The TDLR noted that no state funds have been made available for the next two years for any cloud seeding operations in Texas. Rain enhancement projects currently are being funded by underground water conservation districts and other local political subdivisions, such as county commissions and aquifer authorities. PGCD said that its program is funded through the district’s regular budget, and noted that in 2021 the cost was about 3 cents per acre for the district.
Even if no state funding has been made available for programs like PGCD’s cloud seeding, the 2022 State Water Plan included financial assistance through the State Water Implementation Fund for Texas. The program, as described by the Texas Water Development Board, provides loans to political subdivisions and nonprofit water supply corporations with projects included in the state water plan, including:
- River authorities
- Special law districts
- Water improvement districts
- Water control and improvement districts
- Irrigation districts
- Groundwater conservation districts
Although the PGCD funded its program through its regular budget and does not appear to have filed a loan application with SWIFT, other areas of Texas have utilized the program to fund an array of water-related projects.
Does it work?
That depends on who you ask.
The National Research Council concluded, in a 2003 report on weather modification, that “there is still no convincing scientific proof of the efficacy of intentional weather modification efforts.”
Historically, analyses of cloud seeding operations and their effectiveness have been difficult for a number of reasons. In order to be certain that cloud seeding made the difference in precipitation for a particular storm, for example, researchers would need to be able to compare a seeded storm in the exact same area and with the exact same weather conditions that a not-seeded storm took place. Due to the chaotic nature of weather, that’s nearly impossible and would require advanced technology that hasn’t historically been available.
Quantifiable data about the impacts of cloud seeding is a recent development; the National Science Foundation only reported the first quantifiable observations of cloud seeding for increased snowfall in 2018, and the technology that has made such reports possible has developed to that point only in the last 20 years.
However, as drought conditions continue to grow more frequent and more severe and groundwater sources such as the Ogallala Aquifer continue to dry up, many water management agencies and communities have shown a willingness to continue to fund cloud seeding operations and research because of its possible potential to help mitigate the impacts of water supply issues. Even the NRC, in its 2003 report, still recommended continued research on weather modification.
TDLR said an analysis of Texas cloud seeding operations, produced at Texas Tech University in 2019, said that on average individual seeded thunderstorms lived 41% longer than untreated storms in the vicinity and covered about 44% more area. Rain output from seeded storms, on average, was 24% more than that from nearby untreated storms. The 101 single, isolated thunderstorms seeded appeared to produce around 101,000 acre-feet beyond what could have been expected without seeding, and more complex thunderstorm clusters that were seeded appeared to yield a bit over 956,600 additional acre-feet of rainwater.
Altogether, there isn’t a consensus on whether or not cloud seeding is an effective way to add to a region’s water supply. However, research and analysis into ongoing cloud seeding operations may be able to offer more conclusive data in the coming years as technology and research strategies develop.
The Texas State Water Plan 2022, cloud seeding, and the future
The Texas Comptroller’s office, as described on its website, serves as the state’s chief tax collector, accountant, revenue estimator, treasurer and purchasing manager, and overall chief financial officer. Hegar, who also serves as a member of the board of advisors for the SWIFT program, said that part of his “Good for Texas Tour: Water Edition” would include sharing results of a new Comptroller’s office report highlighting the role that water management plays in providing for the future of Texas families and businesses.
While cloud seeding isn’t a major source of new water in Texas, according to the Comptroller’s report, “it is one of many water management strategies that help ensure enough water is available for future needs.” The 2022 State Water Plan recommended that cloud seeding provide about 5,000 acre-feet of water annually for irrigation users by 2070, or about 1% of the total recommended strategy supplies for that year.
According to the 2022 State Water Plan, the majority of the water resource strategies going through 2070 will be focused on demand reduction, surface water, groundwater, reuse, and seawater.
The Comptroller’s water tour is expected to continue through Oct. 20. While Desalination, aquifers, and cloud seeding have been covered so far in the tour, the published schedule detailed that upcoming focus topics will include surface water, canal systems, groundwater, and flood mitigation.
For the latest updates on local news, events, and weather, check with MyHighPlains.com.