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On a day when freeways disappeared under water, houses teetered on their foundations and rescuers kept a wary watch on swollen flood control channels, a cloud-seeding company was collecting $400 from Los Angeles County to stand by in case anyone needed . . . rainmakers.
Indeed, even though water officials have used superlatives to describe this very wet winter, the county continues to pay the rainmaking firm $15,120 in monthly fees at a time when it faces a budget shortfall in the coming year that may approach $1 billion.
And some officials say that makes sense, strange as it sounds.
But Supervisor Gloria Molina plans to introduce a motion at next week's Board of Supervisors meeting to suspend the county's contract with Utah-based North American Weather Consultants for the remainder of the month, Molina spokesman Robert Alaniz said.
"We find it totally ludicrous to keep paying this company $400 a day while we're in the midst of a whole month of heavy rain," Alaniz said.
The county has a $181,460 six-month contract with North American that includes the daily payments as well as installation and other fees. It could suspend the $400-a-day fees, with the contract resuming the following month if more rain were needed.
Mel Blevins, an engineer with the Los Angeles Department of Power and Water, said the cloud-seeding program is unnecessary because the DWP considers the drought over locally. "If I were the manager of that program, I would cancel the contract," he said.
But county engineers defended the program, one of 18 in the state, saying it makes sense to artificially produce rain this year because it is cheaper than importing water.
"It's money well spent," said Bob Pedigo, assistant deputy director of the hydraulic/water conservation division of the county Department of Public Works.
On three different occasions so far this year, North American has discharged a stream of microscopic particles of silver iodide--a rain-inducing chemical--into the air from some of its 10 generators in the San Gabriel Mountains between Azusa and Pacoima.
As a result, a quarter-inch of extra rain fell, saving about $308,000 in water costs, contends Dan Lafferty, a county public works engineer. That figure stems from the fact that it costs less to artificially produce rain, then pump the water out of the ground locally, than to import it, Lafferty said. The county pays about $322 per acre-foot for imported water and $90 to pump it locally, he said. An acre-foot is 325,900 gallons.
"The program has already paid for itself," he said.
Also, the county may need some artificially produced precipitation to top off its reservoirs if the current rains turn out to be the last of the season's heavy storms, Pedigo said.
Some of those reservoirs were close to capacity this week when the county released about 26,000 acre-feet of water to reduce the risk of flooding from the current storm. That's enough water to supply 26,000 five-member households for 18 months.
To replenish the reservoirs, it would be cheaper to pay North American to whip up a small local shower after the rainy season ends than to import the water, he said.
Pedigo said he decided this week not to suspend North American's contract for the remainder of the month because next week, conditions may be ideal for cloud-seeding. Rainmaking operations are conducted only when there is no danger of flooding, he said, so the rainmakers look for small storms to boost--avoiding major weather fronts such as those now in the area.
"It's a crapshoot," Pedigo said. "You try to look in your crystal ball and make a judgment call. It's frustrating because we're dependent on the weather forecasts."
But Lafferty said another reason the contract was not suspended was to preserve the relationship with North American.
"We have to work with these guys," he said. "There's no sense in jacking them around if it's not going to amount to much savings."
The county operated a seeding program intermittently for 14 years in the 1960s and 1970s. But it was canceled in February, 1978, after heavy rains caused severe flooding in Big Tujunga Canyon above Sunland-Tujunga. A seeding had taken place the day before the storm, which killed 11 people and caused $43 million in damage. Dozens of lawsuits were filed against the county.
All of the suits were eventually rejected by the courts and the county resumed the program in the 1991-92 rainy season because of the drought.