Desert Research Institute
Monday, Aug. 31, 2009 | 2 a.m.
- 25 years out, no end in sight to water pipeline fight (8-22-2009)
- Authority reaffirms support for water pipeline (8-20-2009)
When Southern Nevada Water Authority General Manager Pat Mulroy suggested the agency fund a shuttering Desert Research Institute cloud seeding program, it turned more than a few heads.
The project is vital to a stable water supply in Northern Nevada, but what does it have to do with Southern Nevada?
Well, not much — at least not right now.
The cloud-seeding program provided precipitation to some of the rural ground water basins from which the authority wants to eventually pump water for Las Vegas.
The authority has been involved in the institute’s cloud-seeding program for years — but not in Nevada. It has paid the research institute $121,000 over the past three years to conduct cloud-seeding research and spur precipitation in the mountains between Denver and Grand Junction, Colo. The bill went to the authority’s Enterprise Fund, which gets most of its money from wholesale delivery charges to municipal water agencies.
Because 90 percent of Las Vegas’ drinking water comes from the Colorado River, and because snowmelt from the upper basin has dropped amid the drought, paying for cloud seeding there made sense. In that case, the authority was effectively trying to create its own water.
Cloud seeding means adding chemicals to clouds to induce or increase precipitation. In Nevada that most often involves pumping silver iodide particles into clouds from a remote controlled mountaintop station when the right cloud patterns are present. The silver iodide changes the composition of ultracold water in the clouds, turning the liquid into snow or ice, which then falls to the ground.
Desert Research Institute has 23 cloud-seeding stations in Nevada and six in the Sierra Nevada range along the California-Nevada border. They create about 65,000 acre-feet of precipitation each year in Nevada, mostly in the form of snow, according to institute data.
The institute is a world leader in cloud-seeding research and technology dating to the 1970s. The program developed remote-controlled mountaintop cloud seeding stations used today in Nevada and around the world.
But in this year’s legislative session, funding for the program dried up. With the economy in a shambles and not enough new income, the Legislature made deep cuts in the higher education budget. Desert Research Institute gets only about 15 percent of its budget from the state, but the cuts were felt mainly by the institute’s service-oriented divisions, such as the cloud-seeding program, which get most or all of their funding from state coffers.
The cloud-seeding program is small and appears to have been relatively efficient, with, at most, five highly trained employees with years of experience. Its budget was $550,000 to $600,000 a year, depending on how much cloud seeding took place.
The program served the community in important ways but didn’t bring in many grants or closely align with the core mission of research, institute President Stephen Wells said.
“I don’t have any sources of money to go to keep these parts of DRI functional,” Wells said. “It was a terrible choice I was forced to make.”
How Southern Nevadans might benefit from manipulating precipitation above the Sierra Nevada range and in northeastern Nevada, from which we currently get no water, isn’t as clear.
Las Vegas Valley Water District spokesman J.C. Davis says it all comes down location and timing.
The seeding program increases snowpack by 2 percent to 10 percent, the higher percentages coming in drought years, according to the institute’s figures. When that snowpack melts, some of it recharges the aquifers in the valleys below.
The water authority owns water rights in four such aquifers between here and White Pine County. It has suspended an application for more water in the fifth, Snake Valley, a ranching community below Great Basin National Park on the Utah border.
Water authority staff members are examining whether it would be in Southern Nevada’s best interest to fund part of the core cloud-seeding program, which would make it possible for the institute to continue seeding above the Colorado River basin while supporting cloud seeding above the basins in which it owns water rights.
Keep the water coming in now, when the drought is at its height, they hypothesize, and you’ve got a better chance of pulling something out of the ground in the future.
Northern Nevada, though, is immediately dependent on that snow. It, like much of the rest of the West, has been hit hard by a multiyear drought. The additional tens of thousands of acre-feet of precipitation created each year by the seeding program has kept ski slopes open and stabilized the region’s aquifers, Washoe County Commissioner John Breternitz said.
“In Northern Nevada we’re hard pressed every winter to have enough water to get by,” he said. “The cloud seeding is an added insurance.”
That’s why Northern Nevada is trying to find ways to pay for it. Breternitz is building a coalition of business owners, politicians and residents to raise money to get the project back up and running.
The institute is preparing reports for the Truckee Meadows Water Authority, Washoe County and the Southern Nevada Water Authority on what it would take to resuscitate the program. It has also ordered its staff to stop dismantling the seeding stations.
“We’re in the ramping up mode where we’re trying to get the word out and see if we can find anyone who can fund it on the interim basis and then find a long-term funding mechanism,” Breternitz said. “The state needs to understand how important this program is to Nevada.”
The water authority’s entrance into the discussion, though, has changed the dialogue. The agency wants to pump tens of thousands of acre-feet of water each year from rural Nevada basins. Most rural Nevadans, including many in areas that depend on cloud seeding, oppose that prospect.
The Bureau of Land Management is expecting to complete its draft environmental impact statement on the pipeline in early 2010, but construction isn’t likely to begin for several years.
The project faces mounting opposition from ranchers, farmers, environmentalists, American Indians and national parks enthusiasts who say it will suck dry some of the most beautiful country in the state and ruin the lives of local residents.
The authority has acquired water rights in four of the five basins from which it wants water. In Spring Valley, it had to purchase and operate large ranches to get the water it wanted. And it has made deals with Lincoln County to exchange 3,000 acre-feet of water each year for support for its water rights applications there. The agency recently agreed, as part of a water basin agreement between Nevada and Utah, to wait 10 years before pursuing the water rights it applied for in a final basin, Snake Valley.
Pipeline opponents see the cloud-seeding proposition as yet another way the water authority is trying to manipulate rural Nevadans into supporting the pipeline. For them and other pipeline foes, it serves as another “ah ha” moment.
“It appears that the SNWA is acknowledging that there just isn’t enough water in the basins they have targeted, at least if they are going to avoid widespread defoliation and environmental destruction,” said Launce Rake, spokesman for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada.