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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

Eight percent of the water New Mexicans use each year goes toward the public water supply, which includes the sprinklers on golf courses and the tap water in homes. Much more—over three-quarters of all the water consumed in the state—diverts to irrigated cropland, according to the Office of the State Engineer.

Just those two categories constitute more than 1.1 trillion gallons a year, enough to drown the state 23 feet deep.

Fast-forward to 2040. The population doubles, if today’s official projections are correct. Unless New Mexicans get a lot more efficient or a lot less thirsty, they’ll need another trillion gallons, give or take.
Where will all that water come from?

This is the question that preoccupies Sigmund Silber, a hunched but lively man with a white moustache and a way of talking almost entirely with numbers. He hails from back east, but has adopted the bolo tie.

Silber, whose background is in mathematics and planning, moved to New Mexico five or six years ago after working for a company that owned a copper mine in Silver City. Today, he and his girlfriend, a biologist, live on a small ranch off Route 14 toward Cerrillos, with an orchard, a garden, chickens and soon, they hope, some sheep. Thirsty creatures all.

“When I moved to New Mexico, it was pretty clear to me that we had a water problem,” Silber says.

Cloud seeding came to his attention when he began to head up the technical committee of a regional water-planning council. The reports he read—“paper after paper after paper after paper”—impressed him. But it was difficult to find support for weather modification projects within the state bureaucracy.

So in 2004, Silber formed the New Mexico Weather Modification Association, a nonprofit organization for which he now serves as president. As such, he is the chief advocate for cloud seeding in New Mexico. His goals are ambitious, to say the least.
“I’m interested in saving agriculture,” Silber says. “There are people who say, ‘Why do you want to grow things in the desert?’ I think that’s a mistake.”

The calculation is simple. Droughts kill crops. Farmers lose money. Food costs more.

“In New Mexico, we don’t have many sources of income,” he says. “Oil and gas is declining. Tourism is a big part of the economy, and it requires the state to be somewhat green. If you kill agriculture, you’re going to kill our traditional communities. That’s not good for tourism. You’re going to have people driven off the land and into cities. That’s not good.”

Which is why cloud seeders cast their mission in almost heroic terms. They see their way of bringing rain as part of a larger effort to keep civilization from passing into dust.

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