A Lockheed WC-130B used by U.S. government researchers Stormfury, a cloud seeding research project focused on reducing the strength of hurricanes.


Lawton Turns to Weather Manipulation to Aid Drought-Stricken City Water Supplies

  • Joe Wertz
A Lockheed WC-130B used by U.S. government researchers Stormfury, a cloud seeding research project focused on reducing the strength of hurricanes.


A Lockheed WC-130B used by U.S. government researchers Stormfury, a cloud seeding research project focused on reducing the strength of hurricanes.

Five years of drought has strangled lakes and reservoirs in southwestern Oklahoma.

The city of Lawton is considering extraordinary means to help fill water supplies. City leaders hope a man with an airplane can manipulate the weather and bring more rain.

Gary Walker has a lot of titles under his belt: Navy pilot, cowboy, water conservation district manager and four-term Texas lawmaker. But he’s not a rainmaker.

“I can’t put two inches of water on farmer Jones’ field; I have to just work with the clouds,” he says.

If he has the right clouds to work with, Walker says he can make them bigger, more voluminous and more likely to produce rain. The weather-modification process is known as “cloud-seeding.”

To do this, Walker and his team go airborne. A meteorologist on the ground guides pilots into cloud formations, where they activate special chemical flares on the airplane’s wings. The chemicals — Walker uses calcium chloride and sodium iodide — promote cloud condensation and provide small particles on which ice and water can form.

Walker’s company, Seeding Operations and Atmospheric Research — or SOAR, has flown weather-modification missions over states like California and Texas, and internationally in places like Istanbul, Turkey. Given two similar clouds, Walker says he can get 10 or 15 percent more water through cloud-seeding.

Cloud contract

In February, Lawton approved a $1 water bill surcharge to pay Walker’s company for a five-month, $250,000 cloud-seeding contract. Work could start as early as April.

Officials with the Oklahoma Water Resources Board say the Lawton project is likely the state’s first cloud-seeding operation in at least a decade and the first weather-modification permit application filed with the state in the last 25 years.

In the early 1970s, the OWRB assumed permitting responsibility for most weather-modification activities around the state, with two exceptions: A state Legislature-funded program that ran from 1996-2001 and the federally funded Weather Damage Modification Program, which ran from 2002-2003 and was administered by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, says OWRB spokesman Cole Perryman.

“We were pretty surprised when we saw the permit,” says Water Resources Board Executive Director J.D. Strong.

The most recent weather-modification permit the OWRB has record of approving was issued in 1986 for “rainfall-enhancement operations” the following year at Hitch Ranch Agri-Business.

Historical Success?

Keith Jackson has been a Lawton city councilor for 16 years and is one of the project’s biggest supporters.

“I’m excited about it,” he says in an interview at Lawton City Hall.

Lawton’s water situation is dire. Combined, the three reservoirs that supply water to the city’s roughly 97,000 residents are hovering around 40 percent full. The city has already enacted mandatory restrictions on outdoor watering, and Jackson expects the city will forced into stricter rationing within weeks.

“I want to emphasize that this is not going to make it rain. This is not going to create rain,” says Jackson, who tells people the idea is to coax additional precipitation from rain-ready weather.

In the long term, the city is considering digging more wells or building a new pipeline, but those projects are years away. Jackson hopes cloud-seeding will help fill the reservoirs.

And, he says, weather modification worked for Lawton in the past. In the late ’60s or early ’70s, the city faced similar drought-fueled water supply problems and turned to Irving P. Krick for cloud-seeding assistance.

Krick was one of the country’s first commercial meteorologists and a member of the team that forecasted the weather for the D-Day invasion. He was a controversial character who was often at odds with an academic establishment that doubted his rainmaking methods. In 1953, M.B. Cunningham, Oklahoma City’s water superintendent at the time, praised Krick’s work to reporters at WKY-TV.

“We have received some benefits,” Cunningham told WKY-TV. “And, of course, we don’t know whether the benefits all came as a result of his work, but at least a review of the projects where he has worked offers very convincing evidence.”

“Whatever he did worked,” Jackson says about Krick’s efforts above Lawton more than 40 years ago. People were convinced. “Even a lot of the old skeptics — you know, the farmers, the people who are normally skeptics of rainmaking.”

Dust Bowl desperation

Kevin Kloesel, a meteorologist and director of the Oklahoma Climatological Survey, says rainmaking techniques have been sold in Oklahoma “ever since the Dust Bowl.”

“Every time there is a deep drought, any possible way of augmenting precipitation becomes something that, almost in desperation, people begin to try,” Kloesel says.

While Kloesel says many rainmakers of the past proved to be charlatans, he doesn’t doubt the sincerity of modern weather modifiers — or some of the methods they use to promote rain-generating clouds.

But he says there’s one glaring flaw with cloud-seeding science: Mother Nature makes a complicated laboratory — there’s no way to make a cloud control group.

“I’m not saying it doesn’t work; I’m saying there’s no scientifically valid way to test its effectiveness,” Kloesel says.

Researchers have studied weather modification for decades. To produce rainclouds, reduce hail or diminish the power of hurricanes. The problems with testing cloud seeding, Kloesel says, are the same ones that vex meteorologists and weather scientists who work around the clock trying to predict naturally occurring weather patterns.

“There are so many unanswered questions and things we don’t understand about rainfall to begin with, that even trying to seed clouds, we’re in a position of not being able to make any meaningful determination of whether it actually worked or not,” he says.

In Lawton, city councilman Jackson makes no rainfall promises, but he says cloud-seeding is worth a shot and that most residents seem to be on board.

There have been many complaints about the $1 fee to pay for the cloud-seeding contract. But as for the issue of chemical-spraying, cloud-making airplanes flying overhead?

“I haven’t had any calls,” Jackson says.