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Silver Lining

Cloud seeders push New Mexico to solve its water woes by making rain  

March 3, 2009, 12:00 am

On a cool February morning, without a cloud in the sky and with the economy in the dirt, lawmakers and lobbyists file into the Roundhouse in Santa Fe. Inside a crowded and somewhat dingy room, Gary Walker makes his pitch.

The Agriculture & Water Resources Committee of the New Mexico House of Representatives isn’t the most glamorous group of people ever to gather around a conference table—but Walker has seen worse. “I’ll tell ya, y’all got a lot of better looking legislators than in Texas,” he says.

A former Texas lawmaker, Walker knows when to turn on the charm and when to get to the point. “I know your money’s short,” he says, “but the viability of rural New Mexico depends on your water supply.” And, for the bargain price of $250,000, he promises to increase that supply by thousands and thousands of gallons.

It takes some explaining. He knows his way of rainmaking sounds a bit like sprinkling the clouds with fairy dust. “It’s not voodoo science like it used to be in the ’50s,” Walker says.

In the back of the room, State Engineer John D’Antonio says

he approves of the rainmaking project. Hoyt Pattison, a dairy producer and industry lobbyist from Clovis, also stands. He is dressed like a cowboy. “This works. And we need this in New Mexico,” Pattison says.

Rep. Ray Begaye, D-San Juan, voices some mild skepticism about the state’s past investment in rainmaking. After a short, not-too-technical discussion, the committee unanimously recommends the state fund cloud seeding in Roosevelt and Lea counties. (At this writing, the bill had yet to come to the floor.)

Walker files into the bustling hallway with Rep. Keith Gardner, R-Chavez, who sponsored the weather modification bill. Gardner’s district is suffering a drought. “I don’t even remember what rain looks like,” he told the committee.

Cloud seeding, Gardner hopes, could be the answer. “When I first heard about it, I thought it was some sort of a dance,” Gardner says. Now he is a believer.

Faith often springs from desperation. And as the world’s streams and aquifers dry out, diverted toward growing cities, cloud seeding believers grow in number.

The Chinese government employs the world’s most enthusiastic seeders. They shot silver iodide rockets into the skies through last year’s Olympics in an attempt to control weather patterns during the opening ceremony. In late February, China’s weather modification office took credit for a big snow in Beijing. “Hundreds have played truant from offices to sneak a peak of the first snowfall of the winter,” the Times of London reported. However, it was “still nowhere near enough to alleviate the drought that is threatening wheat harvests in several northern provinces.”

Cloud seeding is underway in Israel, Greece, Australia, Thailand—the list goes on. Here in the US, it’s going on in Texas, Colorado, California and beyond. A five-year, $8 million state-funded cloud-seeding experiment in Wyoming recently entered its fourth year. Michael Purcell, director of the Wyoming Water Development Commission, says the experiment will be considered successful if it increases precipitation by 15 percent.

“We can’t, at this point in time, tell you whether it’s doing any good or not,” Purcell says. “I’m sure the smart people have some inkling. They’re sworn to secrecy until the whole thing’s done.”

These efforts have gained a sense of urgency, not just because of global warming.

Over the past few years, “peak oil” has caught on as a catchphrase for oil depletion that’s roughly synonymous with Armageddon. Now Gleick of the Pacific Institute is sounding an alarm over “peak water.” He is among those who believe water could be to this century what petroleum was to the last.

“Water is different than oil in that it’s a renewable resource,” he says. Unfortunately, “we use it faster than nature recharges it.”

Signs of shortage abound. News services carry reports of droughts from the Middle East to China to California. This month, the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power—the largest city utility in the US—may vote to charge consumers extra if they exceed a monthly water allowance. “Of all places—Hollywood and glitz and money—they’re going to start rationing water because they don’t have enough,” Gabriel Eckstein, director of the International Water Law Project, says.

Santa Fe and Albuquerque already charge their biggest water users more, to discourage overconsumption. In the near future, that may not be enough.

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