Montana laws have made practice all but impossible since 1993.
BILLINGS — Loren Young is ready to try anything to fight the dry conditions that have reached his eastern Montana farm, and that includes cloud seeding.
It’s a feeling that isn’t shared by many of his neighbors, who still consider it a gimmick that neighboring North Dakota used years ago to steal their rain.
But Young, who farms near the border town of Fairview, believes the time has come for Montana to end its long-standing opposition to cloud seeding and give farmers another tool.
“My feeling is, it can’t hurt,” Young said. “North Dakota is doing it and they’re doing fine.”
As much of Montana’s prime farm land enters a fourth straight year of drought, many of the state’s agricultural leaders and producers like Young are giving cloud seeding a new look — and hoping state regulators will do the same.
“It’s strictly an economic thing,” said Harlin Steiger, surveying his fields of spring wheat and lentils near Hysham in central Montana. “This would help our bottom line immensely if we could get more rain and I could get a few more bushels per acre.”
At the Montana Farmers Union, President Del Styren said the group believes it is time to at least consider what cloud seeding could offer.
“This could be a service that lowers the risk of hail in the good years and brings more rains on the bad years,” he said.
But supporters still have a long way to go to convince skeptics.
“I know when springs start drying up, you get pretty desperate,” said Ric Holden, a Montana state senator and farmer near Glendive. “But if you just start throwing some money in the sky, hoping some rain falls down, it is a pretty risky venture.”
Cloud seeding is the practice of dropping tiny crystals of silver iodide into cumulus clouds to enhance rain. In theory, the particles serve as nuclei for water swirling in the subfreezing tops of potential rain clouds. The developing ice crystals melt as they fall through the clouds, making rain.
Studies by the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and North Dakota State University show a 45 percent reduction of crop losses to hail in areas where clouds have been seeded. The studies also found a 7 percent to 14 percent increase in rainfall in the same areas.
Still, there is disagreement within the scientific community over just how proven cloud seeding is. Farmers know it won’t end drought, but some — like Steiger and Young — believe the state ought to at least give it a shot.
In North Dakota, the state and some western counties spend thousands of dollars each year contracting with a Fargo company called Weather Modification Inc., to seed clouds. For years, pilots began seeding clouds while they were on Montana’s side of the border, hoping rain would fall as the clouds crossed into North Dakota.
But beginning in 1990, after some farmers blamed North Dakota’s cloud-seeding program, visible overhead, for the worsening drought in eastern Montana, the Montana Board of Natural Resources and Conservation refused to let North Dakota seed clouds west of the state line.
North Dakota sued, and a Montana judge sided with North Dakota, saying there was no proof that cloud seeding depleted rainfall in eastern Montana.
The Montana Legislature responded with a law requiring an expensive environmental study before any cloud-seeding project could be conducted in the state, and requiring anyone seeding clouds in Montana to put up a $10 million surety bond to cover any adverse effects.
That law remains on the books, and no cloud seeding has occurred since it passed in 1993.
Last fall, for the first time since the law took effect, North Dakota approached Montana officials seeking permission to resume crossing the border to seed clouds. Montana declined, however, because North Dakota’s request didn’t include an agreement to put up the full amount of the surety bond, officials said.
Darin Langerud, with North Dakota’s Atmospheric Resource Board, said officials offered what they thought was a reasonable insurance sum instead, based on what other states require of cloud seeders.
He said talks continue but the two sides are still “a ways from an agreement.”
Jim Sweeney, vice president of Weather Modification, said Montana’s requirements are unheard of.
“No other state has such stringent restrictions,” he said.
Holden said he worries North Dakota’s renewed interest in seeding clouds in Montana is a “recipe for hard feelings” among farmers in eastern Montana and western North Dakota.
“You’re only going to squeeze so much rain out of those clouds,” he said. “I think we’re going to have to live out, ultimately, what Mother Nature gives us.”
Young, who has land within six miles of the North Dakota border, believes he received some residual benefit from Montana’s cloud seeding years ago and says Montana should launch its own program.
“What caused me to be more supportive was the amount of hail we had in the ’90s since they stopped flying into Montana,” he said. “It’s more than I’d had in many, many years.”
The Farmers Union recently decided to meet in July with ranchers, lawmakers and scientists to discuss whether farmers want to pursue a cloud seeding project in the state. The group has not taken a position on the issue.
But if members decide to support cloud seeding, it would mean either coming up with a huge chunk of money to meet the state’s requirements, or persuading lawmakers to change the law, said Styren, the group’s president.
“Those are all avenues we need to look at. Funding definitely is going to be a problem or a concern,” he said. However, “if we think it’s viable as a tool to look into, we will pursue it.”
On the Net:
Montana Natural Resources and Conservation Department: http://www.state.mt.us/dnrc/
Montana Farmers Union: http://www.montanafarmersunion.com/
North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board: http://www.swc.state.nd.us/arb/
Weather Modification Inc.: http://www.weathermod.com/