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A Durango-based company is proposing a “cloud seeding” project to boost snowpack in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains this winter.
Eric Hjermstad, field operations director for Western Weather Consultants, said cloud seeding “intensifies storms” to produce more precipitation.
“We burn silver iodide through a propane flame, which vaporizes the solution and creates artificial ice nuclei,” Hjermstad said. “Winds carry the product up into the moisture regime of the cloud, where nuclei start to have moisture grow and form snowflakes, which once they’re large enough, will fall.”
The team would install seven generators at high-elevation sites on private property near ski areas from Red River to Santa Fe.
Weather modification in New Mexico requires a license from the Interstate Stream Commission. The company submitted an application on Oct. 15.
Christina Noftsker, a Commission water resources specialist, said public comments on the application “have ranged from supportive to requesting flat out that the project be canceled.”
“We received definitely more than 10 formal letters of protest so far,” Noftsker said.
This year the state Legislature appropriated funds to the New Mexico Department of Agriculture for a weather modification program.
The NMDA worked on a request for cloud seeding proposals with the Roosevelt Soil and Water Conservation District in Portales, which awarded a $55,000 contract to Western Weather Consultants in September.
The Colorado business has done similar work in Vail, Beaver Creek and the San Juan Mountains for more than 30 years.
Ideal cloud seeding conditions occur when a storm moves into an area and temperatures are below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
The Weather Modification Association and the Desert Research Institute say that silver iodide is not harmful at the concentrations used for cloud seeding.
“The fact that (silver iodide) is not an ion and it cannot bond with any other elements, that makes the process safe,” Hjermstad said.
The company would pause the project if snowpack levels created avalanche danger for mountain roads or posed a threat for spring flooding.
Outgoing State Engineer John D’Antonio pointed out that weather modification is part of the Colorado River Basin states’ drought response agreements.
This winter’s budget for those programs include $1.4 million in Colorado, $400,000 in Utah and $550,000 in Wyoming.
“I would think that New Mexico needs to participate just for our own benefit, to see if we can increase water supply,” D’Antonio said.
The Interstate Stream Commission may decide at the December meeting whether to license the project or hold a hearing.
Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.