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Weather modification debate continues in Ward County

This map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the 180-day precipitation as a percentage of normal across North Dakota counties. Image via Minot Daily News1 / 2
This map from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows the 180-day precipitation through Aug. 14 in North Dakota counties. Image via Minot Daily News2 / 2

MINOT, N.D. — Opponents of weather modification in Ward County plan to take their arguments against the program to the county commission during budget deliberations that are just around the corner.

Nathan Smith, a Minot-area farmer, said defiance of a county commission directive to suspend operations warrants the dismissal of Ward County Weather Modification Authority members.

The commission also needs to consider whether it should continue funding weather modification, said Roger Neshem, a Berthold-area farmer and the one member of the five-member weather modification authority who has been a vocal opponent of the program.

Hank Bodmer of Kenmare, chairman of the Ward County Weather Modification Authority, counters that commissioners are obligated to fund weather modification to 2020 based on its five-year resolution of support approved in 2015.

"If they don't fund that program for what we asked for, it's unethical and I think it's illegal," he said.

After Neshem brought his arguments to the county commission on July 18, the commission voted to request the state Atmospheric Resource Board suspend cloud seeding operations for the rest of the season. The board responded that its contract with the Ward County Weather Modification Authority prevents it from suspending activities. The commission then sent a directive to the county authority through the authority's chairman Pat Murphy. The commission heard back from Murphy that he was resigning. The commission is taking applications for the vacancy.

Bodmer, who replaced Murphy as chairman, said he has not received any information from the county commission regarding suspending operations. Neshem, who serves on the five-member authority, said he requested a meeting to discuss it but was denied.

"I didn't call a meeting because we knew we wouldn't vote to shut it down. Why shut down a perfectly good program?" Bodmer said Monday, Aug. 14.

Smith and Neshem both said weather modification is not sound science.

"It's a lot of money for something that, statistically, cannot be proven," Smith said. "We need money for so many other programs that are being cut."

The county authority has a $244,500 budget this year, of which $190,000 is supported by a property-tax levy of .55 mills.

"If you look at the climate data, we have lost precipitation in 20 years," Neshem said. "The only places that have lost rainfall is in the weather modification area."

Neshem said his farm has received just 4.1 inches of rain, of which only .24 came when cloud seeding was being conducted. His area also has a high rate of hail, affecting his farm in 18 of the past 20 years, including three storms last year.

"I am willing to take my chances," he said of ending weather modification. "You can't tell me it's going to be worse."

Smith said he began raising late maturing soybeans because of dry summers and wet autumns, which he has come to attribute to cloud seeding activity that occurs from June through August.

Bodmer serves on the state weather modification board and has been on the county authority since 1994. He said the danger of flying in large storm fronts hinders hail suppression, but cloud seeding with silver iodide is effective in smaller storms.

"The ones that pop up in July and August, we have a pretty good record of preventing hail," he said.

Smith and Neshem disagree. They said other states have discontinued their hail suppression and rain enhancement programs because of lack of results. The Weather Modification Association reports rain enhancement programs remain in North Dakota, Texas and California.

Neshem said his grandfather helped start Ward County's weather modification program and he also fought to end it after assessing the results.

"This program was created for agriculture by agriculture. It's turned into a bureaucracy where the county commission can't even shut it down," Neshem said.

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