Cloud-seeding program faces cuts

LAKIN — A Kansas cloud-seeding program aimed at coaxing additional rain and limiting hail storms is facing a rocky future because of state funding cuts, higher chemical prices and questions from opponents who think it is doing more harm than good.

The Western Kansas Weather Modification program has been operating for 37 years, using a small contingent of meteorologists and pilots to make the most out of moisture-bearing clouds in a part of the state where rain can be scarce.

The program began as an effort to replace declining groundwater, but has evolved into a venture that also protects crops from damaging hail.

Now, with the economy still struggling, the program has been reduced to four planes — down from nine at its peak — and a skeleton crew of workers. On top of that, the area is experiencing a drought that has limited the number of seeding operations to five before June 10, when there typically have been 20 during that period each year.

And the cost of silver iodide, the chemical used to seed the clouds, has gone up $20,000 over what it was a year ago.

"No matter how large a program or how many places, the fact is this area is a prime hail region," said program director Walter Geiger.

Current evaluations show the program is only 35 percent effective in suppressing crop damage from hail, but Geiger said that's still more cost-effective than losing those crops.

"Some might say if it's not 100 percent effective, why have the program?" Geiger said. "But the economics of the evaluation shows that even at 35 percent you have suppressed enough hail to pay for the project."

Eight counties participate in the program, paying 5.2 cents per acre of cropland and 2.2 cents for rangeland. Spiraling costs have forced the program to raise its cropland fee by 1 cent.

Finney County, which has been part of the program for 37 years, will decide July 11 whether to continue participating. Each year the county has chopped a little more off what it pays to the project.

"Our position for the past five years is they should be funded by insurance companies," said Finney County Commissioner Larry Jones. "If this program is such a benefit, the insurance companies should be funding it. Groundwater management districts fund the biggest portion."

Kansas Water Office director Tracy Streeter said her office has explored getting insurance companies to help fund the program, but hasn't made much headway.

"We made that effort a few years back," Streeter said. "We got a lot of head nodding. But they didn't get their checkbooks out."

The modification program has seen funding from the state reduced by more than half in the past few years. It received $240,000 in 2008-09 and $168,000 in 2011 and will receive about $98,000 in 2012.

With the latest $70,000 decline in state funding, Geiger said more changes will be made next year, including possibly dropping another plane.

Although that could make the program even less effective, he said the goal will remain to suppress hail and increase the amount of rain in western Kansas.