Controversy over cloud seeding is intensifying in western North Dakota as farmers and ranchers coping with extreme drought question whether the program that's supposed to increase rainfall could be making their problems worse.
Residents of Hettinger County — one of the areas hardest hit by drought this summer— are circulating a petition that seeks to end the weather modification program statewide.
“Our fight is just to return to natural weather again,” said Jamie Kouba, a farmer from Regent.
In response to the increased controversy this year, Darin Langerud, director of the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board, points to studies that have shown North Dakota’s program has suppressed hail by 45 percent and increased rainfall by 5 to 10 percent.
Six North Dakota counties — Bowman, Burke, McKenzie, Mountrail, Ward, Williams — as well as a portion of a Slope County, participate in the North Dakota Cloud Modification Project, which aims to reduce hail and enhance rainfall.
Pilots seed clouds with silver iodide and dry ice to improve a cloud’s ability to produce precipitation. The program is managed and regulated by the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board, a division of the State Water Commission, with a budget of about $1 million this year from state and county funding.
Langerud describes the process like this: “We’re not making it rain, we’re working around the margins of clouds to help increase rainfall a little bit.”
State officials have been getting more questions about cloud seeding this year, including during meetings hosted by Gov. Doug Burgum in drought-stricken areas. Opponents of cloud seeding said they plan to raise their concerns again Monday night during a meeting with Burgum in Mott.
“There certainly is a lot of emotion around this topic,” Burgum said recently while leading an emergency meeting of the State Water Commission to discuss the drought.
Neil Brackin, president of Fargo-based Weather Modification Inc., the contractor for the state program, said he welcomes questions on cloud seeding, which he gets more frequently when weather conditions are extreme.
“The facts are that cloud seeding does not and is not able to impact large-scale impacts such as the drought,” Brackin said.
But some farmers and ranchers question the studies the State Water Commission points to, including Jon Wert of New England who has compiled his own research using historic rainfall totals.
Wert was once a supporter of cloud seeding but over the past 15 years has come to believe that his hometown in Hettinger County receives less rainfall because of weather modification.
“I’m not blaming the drought on it, but it’s contributing to it,” Wert said. “I see that every single year. We’re always looking for more rain.”
Local counties opt to participate in weather modification, which dates back to the 1950s in North Dakota. At one time, 36 of North Dakota’s 53 counties participated in some sort of cloud seeding program, though many of those programs were short-lived, Langerud said.
The program has been most persistent in western North Dakota, where the climate is more arid and hail damage tends to be worse, Langerud said.
Hettinger County stopped participating in the program in 1988 after residents voted against it. But residents there believe cloud seeding in neighboring Bowman County is having an impact on their rainfall.
“We’re still affected by it even though we don’t want it,” Wert said.
Residents of Hettinger County are circulating a petition that will be presented to their county commissioners this week, seeking to to put an end to weather modification, said Kouba.
“Our goal is to end weather modification in North Dakota all together,” Kouba said. “It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars and it’s causing harm to the citizens.”
But Langerud said there’s no evidence that communities downwind from cloud seeding areas will receive less rain.
“On the contrary, the studies indicate that if you’re increasing rainfall in the target area, that increase in rainfall persists into the downwind areas,” Langerud said.
Residents of Bowman County put the issue to a vote last year, with 70 percent of voters supporting cloud seeding. The program was on the ballot in Williams County in 2000 after a four-year trial period and 80 percent of voters supported it, Langerud said.
“The last countywide votes on this program have been very positive,” he said.
The Ward County Commission recently voted to suspend cloud seeding. But the Ward County Weather Modification Board has the authority to decide whether to abide by that or not, said state's attorney Roza Larson.
After receiving many comments on cloud seeding, Burgum directed State Engineer Garland Erbele to compile research on weather modification and present at the next State Water Commission meeting, scheduled for Aug. 23.
During the commission's emergency meeting, Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring also said it will be good to have more discussion on the program.
“There is some misconception out there and there might be some validity of some of the concerns,” Goehring said.