June 15, 2006Farmer’s hail cannons spark storm
Neighbors say devices block rain
By DEEDEE CORRELL THE GAZETTE
CENTER - Farmer John Smith’s spinach is dense, green and unblemished, just as it should be.
His iceberg lettuce is still tiny, but healthy, with leaves sprouting whole and unmarred.
They’ll hopefully stay that way, Smith says, thanks to the eight hail cannons stationed across his 3,800-acre Southern Colorado Farms, aimed at the sky and poised to fire off sound waves that supposedly stop the nasty ice pellets that can ravage his crop. Smith believes in his cannons. So do a lot of his neighbors in the San Luis Valley. That’s the problem. Although Smith maintains that his cannons, $40,000 apiece, can stave off the damage from summer storms, others are convinced they’re doing more than that — stopping the rain as well, drying up an already parched land and killing their livelihood.
“We need all the water we can get, and they’re stopping it from raining,” said Don Evans, one of the ranchers upset with Smith.
He’s become their scapegoat, said Smith, a former district attorney in Alamosa.
“Nobody likes the drought,” he said. “It has to be someone’s fault.”
If some ranchers blame Smith, they’re also reserving some of their wrath for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, which recently renewed Smith’s weather modification permit for the next year. The board concluded that the cannons’ effectiveness was questionable, but that there was no evidence they were causing harm.
They also decided to study whether Smith’s cannons do what he claims they do — and what they’re doing to everybody else.
“That’s the compromise we tried to reach,” said Joe Busto, a hearing officer for the board.
In Colorado, where Fort Lupton and Brighton are the only other places where farmers use cannons, the research on whether they actually work is slim, said Nolan Doesken of Colorado State University’s Colorado Climate Center.
“Without some solid data, it is really hard to judge one way or the other,” he said.
But the World Meteorological Organization dismisses cannons as nonsense, saying that “there is neither a scientific basis nor a credible hypothesis to support such activities.”
A pair of Dutch meteorologists recently published a study concluding that cannons have “no significant effect” on hail. If rocket explosions and thunder can’t destroy hailstones, they wrote, “it follows that surface-emitted sound waves . . . will be even less effective — except maybe to annoy the neighborhood.”
As far as Smith is concerned, the proof is in the Fresh Express bags of prewashed, crisp lettuce and spinach found in any grocery store.
The hard part about growing such crops is keeping them intact. If hailstones rip holes in the leaves, the damage will make customers not want to buy it, said Smith’s administrative manager Mike Jones.
Smith got the cannons to show his suppliers he was doing everything he could to deliver the product, he said. And although he hasn’t documented it, he said he knows the cannons help him do that.
“All I know is the neighbors get hail, and we don’t,” said Smith, who fired the cannons for a total of seven hours last summer.
He’s not the only believer. In Mississippi last year, Nissan installed cannons to guard against the hail that threatened its newly manufactured cars, much to the displeasure of neighbors who didn’t appreciate the constant booming. According to news reports, Nissan officials insist they work, saying they’ve seen hail falling in the area, but not over the plant.
In the valley, some of Smith’s neighbors say they reap the benefits of proximity to Southern Colorado Farms.