WICHITA FALLS — A hundred miles up the road from Fort Worth, drought has made water so scarce that the city of Wichita Falls is trying something it's never tried before: Cloud seeding.
Some scientists question its effectiveness, but city officials say they’re running out of answers.
Conservation has already saved 2.5 billion gallons of water in Wichita Fallas. Nevertheless, since 2011, the city's two main reservoirs have dropped from 87 percent full to just 26 percent.
They are running out of water... and running out of ways to conserve the precious fluid.
"We've gone through 1, 2, 3. We're in Stage 4 now, which is a complete ban on irrigation," said Utility Operations Director Daniel Nix. "We're working on Stage 5."
Nix said he's not sure what a Stage 5 "drought catastrophe" would mean, but he's pretty sure it would hurt worse than a $300,000 bet on cloud seeding.
"Sometimes the cloud seeding works; sometimes it doesn't,” he says. “But it is something we have to look at. It is something we investigated."
Cloud seeding requires the right clouds to work, and — for the most part — the skies around Wichita Falls have been much too clear since the project started on March 1. There have been just a few rainy days suitable for seeding.
We visited the city during a light rain; there was a slim chance to squeeze out a little more.
"These are not good clouds,” said pilot Gary Walker squinting through the windscreen of his twin-engine Cessna. “No moisture."
Walker is an Aggie, former Navy pilot and Texas state representative.
We flew out over Lake Arrowhead. Walker said the goal is increase rainfall over the watersheds for lakes Arrowhead and Kickapoo.
“You can see how receded the waterline is,” he said, dipping the wing for a better view. “Where you see dirt, that would all be water."
Walker is part of SOAR — Seeding Operations and Atmospheric Research. SOAR planes have flown weather modification missions over several states, and in nations as far away as India. Cloud seeding is used around the globe.
A map shows eight weather modification programs underway in Texas alone. Walker said it’s been used in Canada, Argentina and Chile.
As we spoke, he got a call from Turkey about a project.
"You're going to increase your precip by somewhere 10 and 15 percent," he said.
Walker admits he can’t make it rain, but that he can make it rain more than it normally would. It's done with two kinds of flares mounted on the backs of his aircraft's wings which release silver iodide and calcium chloride, which is basically a salt solution.
The particles in the smoke attract tiny droplets of moisture until they become heavy enough to fall as raindrops. The process has been around since the 1940s, but Walker said evolving technology has made it much more effective.
"Show us the science that says it doesn't work," he said. "Let us show you the science that says it does."
"Jury is still out," But Mark Fox, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, isn't convinced. "Jury is still out," he said.
Fox said while there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that cloud seeding is beneficial, there’s no repeatable, controlled experiment to support it.
"I commend anybody for trying anything you have to," he added.
Wichita Falls officials believe research supports cloud seeding.
"We did definitely see results from one of the three seedings,” said Teresa Rose, the city's deputy public works director.
They point out they can end the contract if they don't like the results. Wichita County and some private ranchers are also funding the effort.
On the way out of town, we spotted a sign in a parched yard: “Pray for rain.”
Gary Walker wouldn’t disagree with that.
"Only God makes rain,” he said. “We can get a little more on the ground out of suitable clouds."