In the first half of January 1868, stagecoaches traveling west across Nevada were being stopped by snow. The Austin stage agent received a wire from Virginia City: “Stage that should have arrived from Austin on the 31st Dec. did not come until four o’clock this morning. Snowing, blowing and drifting bad. Don’t book through to Sacramento city.”
In the same period in 1890, temperatures in Reno fell to minus-16 degrees Fahrenheit.
In early January 1937 temperatures in Reno dropped to 16 degrees and minus-50 degrees at San Jacinto rail stop in Elko County.
Even Las Vegas has had these experiences. In January 1949 it was hit with five inches of snow in two days.
In 1953 heavy snowfall at Lake Tahoe crushed a horseshoe-shaped building in Kings Beach that housed a half-dozen stores.
By contrast, in 2012 Nevada has experienced some early January days that were downright hot. Wildfires, normally a feature of summer and fall, have been experienced during this winter.
Although there is still hope of snow and some weather forecasters predicting it this month, there is no ignoring the fact that winter, the source of most of the Truckee Meadows annual water supply, has been less than productive. If nature does not make up for lost time, the year ahead could be grim.
There have been years when nature did just that—the Truckee Meadows water supply was occasionally improved by sudden huge snows in otherwise dry winters. That kind of weather development is more essential this year than most, not just for the water it provides but for the water the state can then “manufacture.”
In normal years, the state depends on its cloud seeding program to bump up the amount of snow.
In a normal year, cloud seeding can favorably influence the water supply from two to 10 percent.
“Even in a normal year we tend to use just about all [water] we get, so increasing that water supply year to year just a little bit tends to help the overall water pattern,” said Desert Research Institute scientist Arlen Huggins.
Whether that can be done this winter is yet to be seen. So far, snow storms have been so minor that there has been nothing to seed.
“I think we’ve seeded like twice this year,” said Huggins, head of the seeding program. “We were able to seed once in November and one brief opportunity in December. … If it continues like it has been, we won’t be able to do much.”
Huggins said this winter in the Great Basin has produced unusual weather not seen in Nevada since 1976-1977.
“It’s an odd year with cooling of the mid-Pacific that alters weather patterns,” he said. Storms have been coming in to the Pacific Northwest, then heading east and dropping down into the Rocky Mountains, bypassing the Great Basin. And that pattern is hanging on.
“It’s really unusual to have the pattern stay this stationary this long,” Huggins said.
The cloud seeding program is prepared for any break in that pattern that will provide storms that can be seeded. The fact that the program itself is ready is something of a bureaucratic miracle, because the Nevada Legislature had slated it for oblivion.
The seeding program, run by DRI, has not received money from the Nevada Legislature since 2007, which carried it through 2009. The 2009 and 2011 legislative sessions cut the program off with no money.
“Instead, we have derived about $150,000 from the Truckee River Fund and $100,000 from the Western Regional Water Commission to seed the Truckee River Basin annually for the past three years,” according to DRI spokesperson Greg Bortolin.
In the late summer of 2009, DRI was actually shutting down the seeding program and disassembling stations in the Sierra when word got around about the impending lack of cloud seeding. Local officials were taken aback by what they considered the shortsightedness of the legislators.
Some parts of the state were threatened more than others by the funding cut. The Truckee Meadows is dependent on the snowpack for its water supply and the failure to seed could mean grim times. In addition, a lack of snow threatened the tourist economy during a season when tourism is already down. Ski resorts without snow meant ski resorts, hotels and casinos with fewer customers.
Nevada’s farming areas also have a stake in the program. And there are other, less predictable effects from time to time. After the 2007 Angora fire, for instance, the effectiveness of reseeding was undercut by the dry winter. According to Susan Kocher of the University of California cooperative extension, “that very dry winter did reduce the survival rate of newly planted tree seedlings. … The later in the spring season they were planted, the worse the survival was as the drought just kept getting worse.” She said the California Tahoe Conservancy had to keep planting and replanting in 2008, 2009, and again in 2010 before it started having success in getting the level of trees up to pre-fire levels.
Washoe County Commissioner John Breternitz approached businesses and other officials about how to revive the cloud seeding program. DRI suspended the dismantling of stations and provided packets that showed the importance of the program. The institute had never been wholly dependent on state money—it had normally obtained grants and donations to pay for about 40 percent of the cost of the cloud seeding program. Now, it had to raise all the money.
Since the legislative cutoff, money has been raised from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Truckee River Fund (an arm of the Truckee Meadows Water Authority), Walker River Irrigation District and the Southern Nevada Water Authority. The entire project now has a budget of less than a million dollars.
With that money, cloud seeding has—when it was possible—been conducted in or adjacent to the Truckee Meadows, the Walker River Basin (which includes the farming areas of Douglas County and Smith Valley), and in northeastern Nevada, where there are both ranching and water sources that are coveted by the Southern Nevada Water Authority (which provided some funding). The seeding itself is usually west of the area that benefits, because the storms tend to move east. In the case of the Truckee Meadows and the Walker River Basin, the seeding is done in California west of the lumber and tourist town of Truckee and around Alpine and Mono counties.
Another factor that elevates the importance of cloud seeding is the temperature trend in the climate of the Great Basin, which encloses most of Nevada. Scientist Jeanne Chambers of the U.S. Forest Service has written that over the course of the 20th century, the Great Basin warmed from 0.6 to 1.1 degrees Fahrenheit. “As a result, the probability of very warm years increased and very cold years declined,” she wrote, reporting further that the trends in the snow pack “have been negative at most monitoring sites in the Great Basin.”