Jim Hagenbarth

Water has long been agriculture’s most precious tool, and when Mother Nature shorts it, the impacts on farmers and ranchers can be devastating. Although weather can in no way be controlled completely, there is technology available that allows moisture-bearing storms to be capitalized upon.

Known as “cloud seeding,” this decades-old technology means releasing silver iodide particles into targeted clouds with an abundance of super-cooled liquid water at appropriate temperatures. Moisture in the clouds condenses around the silver iodide particles, becoming heavy and ultimately falling to land in the form of precipitation.

Cloud seeding may seem like science fiction, but many western states including Idaho, Wyoming, North Dakota, California, Nevada, Utah and Colorado practice cloud seeding. Even Alberta, Canada, uses it.

Currently, Montana does not allow cloud seeding, and Jim Hagenbarth, a generational rancher from Dillon, Mont., argues the state could be missing out.

The Hagenbarth family runs cattle in two different states – wintering them north of Dillon while summering the herd in the mountains outside of Kilgore, Idaho. In Idaho, local water districts and the Idaho Power Company have been seeding clouds in the upper Snake River Valley, the area where the Hagenbarths have summered their cattle since the mid-1990s.

“The result has been an 8-15 percent increase in snowpack in our area,” Hagenbarth said.

Water, no matter its form, is liquid gold to a number of people, businesses and entities. Increased snowpack in the upper Snake River Valley positively impacts watersheds that are used for wildlife, livestock, irrigation and even Idaho Power’s electricity-producing generators at the Milner Dam, about 220 miles south of where the company has currently invested in cloud seeding.

In Montana, cloud seeding has had a rather challenged legislative history. In 1967, legislation was passed that allowed cloud seeding to happen, but in 1993, after a severe drought in eastern Montana led to concerns over North Dakota’s cloud seeding efforts, a bill was passed in Montana essentially making cloud seeding impractical. In 2003 and 2005, legislation was introduced to try and revise the licensing and permitting processes behind cloud seeding, but both sessions failed to pass the bill.

“Cloud seeding has been such a dead issue because the ’93 legislation was so restrictive and just stopped any economically viable cloud seeding programs. Not many people in the state have even heard about cloud seeding or understand it,” Hangenbarth stated.

As a producer, active community member, and member of the Montana Stockgrowers Association and the Montana Farm Bureau, Hagenbarth has been a vocal proponent of cloud seeding in Montana. He has been a part of a successful cloud seeding program in Idaho and feels Montana could benefit from legalizing cloud seeding.

Hagenbarth pointed out, since Montana first legalized cloud seeding, the practice has been much refined and extensive studies have been conducted. Extensive research proves that silver iodide is inert and insoluble in water, causing no environmental harm. Also, contrary to rumor, cloud seeding does not “steal” water.

During a Zoom presentation for Montana Farm Bureau members, Hagenbarth explained that naturally only about 20 percent of a cloud’s moisture condenses with the possibility of becoming precipitation. Moreover, most storms are only 30 percent efficient, meaning only around 6 percent of a storm’s total moisture capacity actually ever reaches the ground. If a cloud seeding program increases precipitation by 15 percent, for example, only 0.9 percent of the water vapor is additionally impacted.

That math proves cloud seeding doesn’t create precipitation, but rather makes precipitation more targeted and efficient. The vast majority of water vapor in a cloud remains in the cloud even after it has been seeded, allowing the cloud to drop where it would as a storm front progresses across the landscape.

“Water is going to become the new liquid gold as more people come to Montana and compete at the ballot box for the use of the water. The only additional water that is available to us is either captured from the clouds going over or increased flows in the water sheds from vegetative management,” Hagenbarth astutely pointed out during his Zoom talk.

While cloud seeding has great potential to increase snowpack in western Montana’s mountains, it can also be used in a warm season setting to either increase rain or suppress hail, like is currently being done in Alberta.

During the 2017 Montana Legislative session, HJ40 was passed. Hagenbarth was instrumental in lobbying for this legislation, which allows for the studying of weather modification practices. Currently the bill sits in the Water Policy Interim Committee and Hagenbarth has been dedicated these last three years to educating lawmakers and producers about the possible benefits Montana could gain from cloud seeding.

Looking ahead, Hagenbarth has worked closely with experts and policy makers to help draft a bill that would legalize cloud seeding in Montana. Senator Gillespie of Ethridge, Mont., will introduce the bill during the 2021 session. Cloud seeding requires an orchestrated process, and passing this bill would be the first step.

“If we can get the legislation changed, at least people can then start looking into cloud seeding as the tool it really is,” Hagenbarth concluded.

A cloud seeding project in Montana would not be government-funded, but rather supported by private entities like ski hills, irrigation districts, water districts and private supporters. For example, the cloud seeding efforts in the upper Snake River Valley in Idaho are made financially possible by 52 different supporters.

It can’t be argued that weather is tricky business, and its impacts, both good and bad, can be game changers for agriculturalists. With precipitation the very lifeline that sustains Montana’s farmers and ranchers, cloud seeding has the potential to modify weather in a way that could be helpful to many Montanans.