Cloud seeding results costly
Yuba County Water Agency officials are leaning against the idea of using cloud seeding to bring more water into the Yuba River watershed after a study showed the costs could outweigh the yield.
The water agency and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. joined to do a study to see how much additional snow could be made to fall using cloud seeding.
Typically, the process works by adding tiny silver iodide particles to air that is below freezing. The particles attract water vapor to form snow.
The study found that cloud seeding targeted in 327 square miles above the 5,000-foot elevation could increase runoff into New Bullards Bar Reservoir on the North Yuba River by an average of 3 percent or less in drier years, said Curt Aikens, YCWA general manager.
But estimated startup costs range from $860,000 to $1.1 million and annual operating costs are about $500,000, which includes paying two full-time employees and operating 12 to 17 ground-based emitters to release silver iodide or some other snow-forming particle.
“Cloud-seeding costs . . . may be too costly, compared to the water supply benefits,” Aikens said. “We’re going to do a little bit of (additional study) on it. But at this point, it’s a no-go.”
One reason cloud seeding doesn’t add up for the YCWA is that the water agency doesn’t sell hydroelectric power generated by its Bullards Bar Reservoir. PG&E helped fund the dam’s construction in 1966, and, in return, gets to sell all of the electricity generated there until 2016.
It might make sense for PG&E to pursue cloud seeding in the Yuba watershed, said Nancy Jones, YCWA assistant manager. “They could do it,” she said. “It might be more lucrative for PG&E to go into something like this.”
Janet Cohen, executive director of the South Yuba River Citizens League, said her organization is interested in knowing whether cloud seeding is environmentally sound.
“We’re concerned about how completely silver iodide biodegrades and whether it will get into the food chain or water supply,” she said.
Aikens said cloud seeding has been used successfully for about 50 years in California, and about a dozen cloud seeding programs are currently active.
Cloud seeding doesn’t reduce snow content in downwind areas, Aikens said. A well-designed program doesn’t contribute to hazardous situations such as flooding, erosion, sedimentation or avalanches, he said.
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