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Bowman County, N.D., to vote on future of weather modification program

BOWMAN, N.D. -- Weather modification is the agricultural community's version of "politics and religion"--a subject they don't talk about. But come Election Day, residents of Bowman County are going to make a decision whether or not they want to c...

Tess Palczewski, far right, speaks during an informational meeting about Bowman County's weather modification on Oct. 19 at the Bowman City Hall. (Sydney Mook / Forum News Service)
Tess Palczewski, far right, speaks during an informational meeting about Bowman County's weather modification on Oct. 19 at the Bowman City Hall. (Press Photo by Sydney Mook)

BOWMAN, N.D. - Weather modification is the agricultural community's version of "politics and religion"-a subject they don't talk about.

But come Election Day, residents of Bowman County are going to make a decision whether or not they want to continue with the practice.

"When our income for our year depends on how our crop, how our livestock, how our hayground produces," Tess Palczewski said. "And if you have somebody interrupting the weather program based on a scientific theory and we don't see the payout, it's very hard not to raise a voice and say 'I don't want you to do this anymore because you're affecting our way of life.'"

The Palczewskis are farmers and ranchers near Scranton who started a petition, which received 358 signatures, to let the people of Bowman County decided whether or not they want to abolish the Cloud Modification Project program.

John Palczewski said he wanted to do the petition for awhile because he would rather see Mother Nature be and not have planes seeding clouds to help determine weather. He believes that other farmers and ranchers in the area feel the same way.

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"When you need rain bad and they're up seeding clouds and you see the clouds disappear, it's pretty disheartening when you got tons of thousands of crops sitting out there," he said.

The Cloud Modification Project is a program that "seeds" clouds for hail damage reduction and rain enhancement in western North Dakota. Counties currently participating in the program are Bowman, Burke, McKenzie, Mountrail, Ward, Williams and part of Slope.

The program began in the 1950s when Bowman County farmer-rancher Wilbur Brewer came together with pilot neighbors Bill Fisher and Bill Mazaros to form Weather Modification Inc., the state's first all-airborne commercial cloud-seeding company, which is now based out of Fargo. When cloud seeding began, it was originally just for a few townships. However, it later expanded to encompass entire counties throughout much of North Dakota. At the time, the program was entirely locally sponsored.

Bowman County currently splits costs for the program with the state, with each putting in approximately $96,000.

Darin Langerud director of the North Dakota Atmospheric Resource Board said there have been many studies over the years that have looked at the program. He said, in regard to rainfall, the studies show a 5 to 10 percent increase in precipitation from the seeding program.

"As far as hail goes, studies show that the program was able to reduce crop hail losses by about 45 percent," Langerud said.

Does it really work?

Bowman County received far less rainfall than normal this year, even with the program in place.

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Recently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture designated Bowman County as a primary natural disaster area due to losses caused by a recent drought.

Langerud said they often get questions about whether or not the cloud seeding affects weather downwind where the clouds aren't seeded. But, Langerud said there is no scientific evidence that shows cloud seeding, which enhances rainfall in one area, produces dry conditions downwind.

"The evaluations of the program here and other places where cloud seeding is done-and it's done in many other places in the U.S. and around the world-those evaluations show that the seeding effect persists for a while downwind and actually those areas downwind will also receive additional precipitation until the seeding effect wears out," Langerud said.

But, John Palczewski believes that's just not the case and he says he's not alone.

He said many neighboring farmers and ranchers want to see the program leave, as well as many of the older farmers who were around during the early years of the program.

Tess Palczewski said she didn't grow up on a farm, but has watched clouds grow and dissipate near their home on several occasions.

"The biggest thing for us is we cannot prove what they're doing works or doesn't work, just as much as they can't prove if they didn't fly the cloud, we would have got anymore or less moisture," she said. "So that's the hardest part, because that's what so controversial is no body can hands down, 100 percent prove what they're doing."

During an informational meeting Wednesday at the Bowman City Hall, many farmers and ranchers expressed their opinions about the program.

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Some in attendance, like Palczewski, said while they believe the program does suppress the hail, they believe the seeding dissipates the amount of rain that comes from the clouds.

However, others at the meeting said they believe in the program and said while it doesn't always stop the hail, it does reduce the damage caused by it. Many mentioned they remember times when crops would get hailed out nearly every year and said that doesn't happen anymore because of the program.

Bowman County farmer Ernest Schober said he visits with older farmers in his neighborhood about weather modification.

"They used to get hailed out one of every three years and we still get hail, but it's not that severe," Bowman County farmer Ernest Schober said.

Schober added that North Dakota is located in area that doesn't get as much rain in general and that can also affect whether or not a growing season is good or not.

Others also expressed concern about whether or not leaving the program would affect the Bowman radar program. However, Langerud said that is not really the case.

If Bowman County were to pull out of the weather modification program, the eight surrounding counties that utilize the radar would have to come up with an additional $14,000 combined to run the radar during the summer months when the State Water Commission was paying for its use for the seeding program.

The last available county count on weather modification from the State Water Commission is from 1976. At that time, there were 17 counties involved in the program-many in the eastern half of the state, including Barnes, Benson, Eddy, Foster, Griggs, Kidder, Nelson, Sergeant and Wells counties.

However, all of those counties dropped out of the program by 1981. While the reasons for the dramatic dropoff are not exactly clear, Langerud said part of the reason is due to cuts in state assistance during that time and claims that the eastern half of the state gets slightly more rain and a little less hail.

Dealing with Mother Nature

Langerud claims that since the weather modification program reduces hail damage, it can help to increase crop production by $12 million to $20 million combined for the counties involved in the program.

"That's a significant impact locally for the producers," he said. "They're gaining a little bit extra yield."

Langerud said ultimately, even from a statistical standpoint, it's difficult to prove either way. But he added they collect as much data as they can over varying lengths of time and never take credit for individual storms producing more rain or less hail.

"There's no way to eliminate hail at this point," he said. "That would be a very, very difficult thing to conceive of-even in the future-how that might happen. But, one of the ways I think a lot the producers look at this program in North Dakota is it's another tool they have to manage their risk."

Hans Ahlness, vice president of operations of Weather Modification Inc., the company that is contracted to fly the clouds for the Atmospheric Resource Board, said he knows it can sometimes be difficult for farmers to be able to tell what they're going to get from the program, especially since the results aren't exactly tangible.

"You can't hand them a check at the end of the year and say, 'Well, here's the money you made because of the cloud-seeding project,'" he said. "You can't give them a truckload of wheat and say, 'Here's the extra wheat you were able to grow because of the rain that you got during the growing season.' ... If we could do that it'd be a lot easier to give people something tangible."

John Palczewski said he would much rather just buy hail insurance and have Mother Nature be in control of whether or not he suffers a loss or a gain because of storms and rainfall.

"We can financially risk our operation with hail insurance," John Palczewski said. "You cannot insure yourself for lack of moisture."

He added that he didn't set out to make people angry or make anyone upset. He just wants to give people a chance to let their voices be heard and do what he thinks is best for his land and family.

"We just would rather see Mother Nature be and not have someone up seeding clouds to try and control the luck we have," he said.

Related Topics: LIVESTOCKNORTH DAKOTACROPS
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