For more than a decade scientists have been giving our snow pack a boost. Derek Blestrud is an Atmospheric Scientist for Idaho Power.
"We go into a natural storm and we try to increase the amount of precipitation that would fall naturally," Blestrud says.
The process is known as cloud seeding and Idaho Power has placed 55 generators in remote areas of Idaho's central mountains. They burn an acetone solution releasing tiny silver iodide particles that are carried into storm clouds by rising air currents.
"And this particle kind of floats around and it acts as a natural ice nuclei it basically teaches water how to freeze. By introducing more of these particles in the atmosphere you get more snowflakes," explained Blestrud
But in order to get those tiny particles in just the right part of the cloud they also attack the storm from the air, operating three aircraft equipped with special flares mounted along the wings. The planes fly along designated courses in the selected basins just seeding as they go along.
How much extra water are we talking about? Well if you add all the water from Idaho Power's cloud seeding efforts from across the entire state it's enough to fill up Lucky Peak Reservoir, not once, but three times!
Since Idaho Power uses hydroelectric generators on the lower end of the Snake River, more mountain snow in the winter means plenty of water to generate power at lower rates.
Idaho is fairly new to cloud seeding and is not alone in a business that's been around since the 50's. It is widely used in western states like California to add to the the snowpack as well as in the midwest to help decrease hail size to protect crops. The success of the project is catching some attention from other agencies.
Shaun Parkinson, the Director of Cloud Seeding at Idaho Power, says, "The state is now subsidizing the project and water users in the Boise and Wood River basins as well as the Upper Snake have started contributing funding."
From an environmental standpoint, silver iodide is inert so it has no harmful effects on fish or plants.
"If you would actually sample the snow fall that we produce from cloud seeding, there's very little silver iodide in it. There's only a few labs in the country that can detect that," Blestrud says.
Idaho Power estimates when maximized the project will increase the natural water supply by a million acre feet. That's enough water to fill not only Lucky Peak but Arrowrock and Anderson Ranch Reservoirs as well, and you can't beat the cost. Water currently rents for about $17 an acre-foot. Water from cloud seeding will cost just $3.50 an acre-foot to generate.
Idaho Power has a target cutoff threshold in central Idaho and as of February 1st the snowpack reached that mark so seeding operations have been suspended, but if we experience a dry spell they could restart before the snow season ends.