Project Skywater: Atmospheric Water Resources Management
“to explore, develop and determine the feasibility of applying the technology of weather modification to meet the Nation’s increasing demand for clean water.”
In 1961 Congress allocated funding for the creation of a weather modification program headed by the Bureau of Reclamation. Project Skywater came fifteen years after Irving Langmuir, Vincent Schaefer, and Bernard Vonnegut of the General Electric Laboratories in Schenectady, New York, successfully demonstrated that “seeding” clouds with nucleating agents like dry ice (carbon dioxide) and silver iodide produced rain. Skywater aimed to demonstrably prove that there was a practical basis for weather modification, as it was popularly called, in terms of cost-benefit and environmental sensibility. Nevertheless, the task was both daunting and singular. The science behind rainmaking was embryonic and not thoroughly tested against the complex variables that govern the weather. Moreover, never before had Reclamation embarked on such a project: a program of taking water management to the skies, of extensive coordination with government and non-government entities typically not involved in surface or ground water issues, of collecting data over a large area, and of understanding a system as large, unwieldy, and unpredictable as the weather.
In 1964 a report of the National Academy of Sciences produced by a panel of experts from the scientific community and government agencies gave a grim diagnosis of the changing of weather. The report critiqued “present efforts which emphasize the a posteriori evaluation of largely uncontrolled experiments,” and instead proposed “patient investigation of atmospheric processes coupled with exploration of the technological applications.” It predicted that even after a very costly and lengthy period of study and testing, not everything could possibly be known about the atmosphere. The program required “integrated large-scale studies” on
the structure and dynamics of convective clouds, the physics of precipitation, the initiation of convection in the boundary layer, the effects of cirrus and dust layers on the radiation balance, the dynamics of severe storms, such as thunder- and hailstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes, and the role of convection therein. 1
Reclamation’s Project Skywater was a cog in a larger wheel to address the need for an integrated program on artificial changes in the atmosphere. Reclamation concentrated studies and testing in the western states, principally in the upper Colorado River basin and along the Sierra Nevada in California, for the purposes of managing and mining water resources, as well as for national defense, public health, and technological development.2 Never well funded, the program had a decidedly mixed cost-benefit, environmental, and operational record that never convincingly supported a sound basis for a national, extensively funded weather modification program.
1 National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, Scientific Problems of Weather Modification; A Report of the Panel on Weather and Climate Modification, Publication 1236 (Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1964), 1-4.
2 United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation, Project Skywater: An Introduction to Rivers in the Sky, December 1973, 1; the stated purpose of the program was “to explore, develop and determine the feasibility of applying the technology of weather modification to meet the Nation’s increasing demand for clean water.”
Colorado Department of Natural Resources. Snowpack Augmentation Research Needs: A History of Weather Modification in Colorado. Bureau of Reclamation Cooperative Agreement No. 9-07-85-V0027. Denver, Colorado, June 1982.
Desert Research Institute/University of Nevada System. Project Skywater: Final Report of the Desert Research Institute. July 1, 1968 to June 30, 1972. Under contract for the Division of Atmospheric Water Resources Management of the Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Department of the Interior. Reno, Nevada, 1973.
National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council. Scientific Problems of Weather Modification; A Report of the Panel on Weather and Climate Modification. Publication 1236. Washington, D.C.: National Academy of Sciences, 1964.
United States Congress. Congressional Record. 1951-90.
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. The Design of SCPP-1, Sierra Cooperative Pilot Project. Denver: Office of Atmospheric Water Resources, August 1982.
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. Final Environmental Statement for Project Skywater. Three Volumes. Denver, Colorado, 1977.
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. Mountain Skywater: The Story of the Colorado River Basin Pilot Project in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado. VHS, Bureau of Reclamation, [no date].
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. An Overview of the Skywater IX Conference on Precipitation Management and the Environment. Denver, Colorado: September 1977.
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. Project Skywater: An Introduction to Rivers in the Sky. December 1973.
United States Department of the Interior, Bureau of Reclamation. “Project Skywater: A Project Report.” By Archie M. Kahan, Chief of Division of Atmospheric Water Resources Management, Engineering and Research Center, Reclamation, [1972?].