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Son of Charles


George Santayana, the great literary philosopher from the early years of the past century, once wrote: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Perhaps San Diego city officials should take note. San Diego Magazine has learned that the city water department, desperate to fill thirsty reservoirs, is ready to spend $230,000 on a “weather modification” project that, according to the official description, is designed “to augment natural precipitation and runoff over a 300- to 500-mile target watershed area, primarily located within the boundaries of the Cleveland National Forest.”

The city had been prepared to spend $200,000; the sole applicant, a cloud-seeding operation known as Atmospherics Inc., came in with a bid of $230,000. Water department spokesperson Tedi Jackson says because the project falls below the $250,000 threshold, city council approval is not needed. Water department officials, she says, hope to fast-track the program so that work could start as early as April.

“We're coming off the driest year on record, and I think everybody is concerned,” Jackson says. “It's a pressing issue. We need water, and our reservoirs are really low—one is down to just 9 percent of capacity. I guess it's kind of like hiring a rainmaker.”

She pauses, then adds, “I mean, it's not quite like Charles Hatfield.”

Ah, yes, Charles Hatfield. The year was 1912, and San Diego, just as it is today, was suffering through a terrible drought. Local realtor Fred Binney, on behalf of the San Diego Wide Awake Improvement Club, sent an urgent letter to the city council: “The Morena Dam reservoir is barely one-third full, and the city's growth hinges on an ample water supply,” he wrote. “We think the council should consider hiring Charles M. Hatfield to make some rainfall.”

Three hot, dry, sticky years later, the council did hire Hatfield, a folk hero of sorts who billed himself as a professional “moisture accelerator.” For more than a decade, ever since he first began experimenting with chemicals and “evaporating tanks” at his father's ranch near Oceanside, Hatfield had fulfilled hundreds of rainmaking contracts from Los Angeles all the way up to the Central and San Joaqin valleys. (A movie, The Rainmaker, starring Burt Lancaster and Katharine Hepburn, was loosely based on Hatfield's story.) Hatfield's contract called for him to produce up to 40 inches of rain for free, and then charge $1,000 per inch for anything between 40 and 50 inches. In December 1915, Hatfield built a tower next to Morena Dam, 60 miles east of San Diego, and set up his apparatus. Smoke and fumes could be seen wafting upward; then, on January 10, 1916, it rained. Hard.

It kept raining, for days, for weeks. Mission Valley was flooded. Bridges washed away. Dams ruptured. Hatfield and his brother came to San Diego to survey the damage, and when they saw the extent of the flooding, they identified themselves as the Benson brothers out of fear someone might hurt them. The city refused to pay Hatfield. He sued. The case continued in the courts until 1938, when it was dropped after a judge ruled the rain was an act of God, not an act of Hatfield.

Fast-forward: Atmospherics' cloud-seeding approach involves using chemicals such as salt crystals to accelerate the “warm rain” process or ice nuclei (silver iodide or dry ice) to supply naturally deficient clouds with the proper concentration of ice crystals to increase rainfall through the “cold rain” process. The clouds are seeded using airplanes.

Atmospherics worked for San Diego once before, in the drought of the early 1990s. The water department's Jackson says that, just as with the Hatfield case, the rainmaking attempt ended with a deluge, but to this day no one's sure what effect, if any, Atmospherics had. It was, after all, El Niño season.

“We don't have all the data on that, and I don't know if we ever will,” Jackson says. “It's a hard thing to quantify—but there was rainfall.”

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