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One Drop at a Time: Cloud Seeding

LAWTON, Okla._As Southwest Oklahoma continues to make its way through a historic drought, entities like the City of Lawton have turned to cloud seeding in an effort to increase our water supply.

As we wrap up our month-long series of reports on the water crisis, 'One Drop at a Time', 7News reporter Darcy Jackson takes a look into the science behind the procedure and whether it's worth the investment of tax dollars.

Since the city's first planes took off in late April, there have been many questions on the minds of Lawton's taxpayers. With residents forking over an extra $1.00 per month to pay the $250,000 dollar price tag, many want to know how the procedure of cloud seeding works and if it's working for Lawton.

Lloyd Walker works for Seeding Operations and Atmospheric Research, better known as SOAR, and he's got cloud seeding down to a science.

"What I'm looking to do is fly about base-level in the clouds, and once I see the appropriate updrafts, I'm going to burn a flare," explained Walker.

His plane is loaded with dozens of those flares filled with silver iodide, all designed to pull more moisture from rain clouds. According to SOAR's website, the silver iodide works with ice crystals inside the cloud to either create bigger rain droplets, or new ones altogether. It's a result that can arrive in a matter of minutes.

"When you burn that flare, 15 minutes from now, you'll see a definite result. Conditions can vary a lot. Generally, we like to be there before the raining and it needs to be within the target area that we specify as well," explained Walker.

The company even has their own team of meteorologists with eyes on the sky to guide pilots like Walker. It's a system they say has proven success for our neighbors. After analysis that compared seeded clouds versus non-seeded clouds the same size, and on the same day, SOAR reported that 410 flares in 2014 contributed to more rain for the city of Wichita Falls. The believed their missions led to a 4.2 percent increase in the city's annual rainfall of just under 24 inches. That kind of return on their investment was enough for Wichita Falls to renew its contract for a second year.

“We were pleased with the analysis. We will dive into that as best as we can and evaluate it internally with staff," said Wichita Falls Public Works Director Russell Schreiber.

That's where the inspiration came for the City of Lawton.

"The feedback has been very positive. We're in the middle of a drought," said Lawton Assistant City Manager Jerry Ihler.

Even with possible seeding affecting not just Comanche County, but several surrounding areas, the city decided it was time to make a move.

"We need to look at all alternatives," said Ihler.

But the conditions have to be just right.

"It's always hard to pinpoint that it was the result of the flare per se," said Walker.

And that's where the controversy comes in.

"You never knew how much rainfall was going to come out of these clouds to begin with, so how can you tell me what we're going to get out after cloud seeding," asked SkyWARN 7 Chief Meteorologist Austin Bowling.

Bowling studies Southwest Oklahoma's skies every day. And he says weather modification can't compete on Mother Nature's vast playing field.

"We have something called the jet stream. That's a river of fast-moving air that our storm systems ride along. And if that's not in the region, we're not worried about the chance of storms. The moisture coming in from the Gulf of Mexico, we need that in place, we need a low-pressure system. These are much larger scale features that we can't really control on such a small scale, such as the cloud seeding," explained Bowling.

Sticking to science is what Bowling says he knows best and remains unconvinced of the effectiveness of cloud seeding.

"I think overall, it's fairly unproven. You can kind of gauge your data to fit whatever agenda you have to at least show it's making an effort to add more rainfall to an area," said Bowling.

Wichita Falls also saw several protests when the procedure first launched last spring. Many were concerned about their well-being.

"If I can't dump it down the trash or flush it down the drain, then how can it be sprayed in the sky? It's toxic to aquatic life, so why should we be poisoning our lakes and waters," asked one protestor.

"If the city really wants to do something, really wants to solve this problem and if they were really interested in that, they would be promoting agricultural farming and gardening practices that help with moisture retention," said another protestor.

So, is cloud seeding worth it for Lawton? We may not know for sure until the results come in this fall, but both sides of the debate are hopeful the drought is on its way out.

"If it's able to be proven, which is going to take many more studies and take much longer than just the three months that we have here in Lawton, to ever prove that this is actually giving us more rainfall," said Bowling.

“The powers that be are always making sure that what they are paying for is worth their money. They're getting what they pay for and I feel like the Lawton project here is definitely on par with the others. It's one that I feel is proven and it does have a future in this country," said Walker.

The City of Lawton has already recognized that recent rainfall isn't the result of cloud seeding efforts. But they remain firm that the procedure is contributing to eradicating extremely dry conditions.

Lawton's contract with SOAR runs until August 31. From there, data will be collected, and by the beginning of next year, we should know exactly how Lawton's $250,000 project will have fared against this historic drought.

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