Cloud seeding director undaunted by critics

By Haley Rice

Duncan Axisa believes he can make it rain.
Axisa said this power is available to him through cloud seeding, the process of dropping silver iodide crystals into the supercooled upper parts of clouds. The crystals act as a gathering point, attracting and freezing the microscopically small droplets of water that make up a cloud. The droplets must stick together in order to become raindrops.
Experiments in cloud seeding first began in the 1940s, when scientists hypothesized that if a seeding agent were dropped into clouds, ice crystals could form on the seeds, melting and becoming rain when falling to Earth.
Now, water districts across the nation participate in cloud-seeding programs, paying for specially equipped planes to fly over their land, dropping the crystals.
The process is complicated. Only certain clouds are ideal for seeding, and the conditions must be perfect. In a year, Axisa’s program, the Southern Ogallala Aquifer Rainfall Program, seeded 731 clouds over six counties in Texas and New Mexico. Axisa said a properly seeded cloud will produce 86 percent more rain than a similar unseeded cloud.
One catch: Cloud seeding costs money. Until 2001, Curry County paid $40,000 annually for cloud seeding. Roosevelt County still pays $60,000 a year, roughly 4 cents an acre. Managed by the Llano Estacado Weather Modification Association, the program was originally funded through donations from local farmers and ranchers. Eventually the state’s Interstate Streams Commission took over the funding.
Toby Bostwick of the Curry County Soil and Natural Resource Conservation District said that three years ago his group pulled out of a five-year cloud-seeding program involving Curry, Roosevelt and Quay counties because it could not justify money spent for results it couldn’t see.
“Way too much taxpayer money was being spent,” he said. “For the money being spent, there are a lot of things that would have been a better use of the money. There’s no way to measure it as far as scientifically. They can measure the height of the clouds but there was no on-the-ground data ever.”
Axisa does not dispute the difficulty of proving success in cloud seeding.
“If we seed for a hundred years, and then we evaluate what happened, then we could tell. But not when we’ve seeded for a year or two,” he said.
Axisa also is undaunted by the fact that the American Meteorological Society has not officially approved of cloud seeding. That is because cloud seeding’s official approval would mean the announcement of man’s ability to change the weather, he said, so this method is held to a higher standard of proof.
“If the board were to say, ‘Cloud seeding works,’ that’s a very bold statement,” Axisa said. “So what they say is, ‘Cloud seeding may increase the rainfall, or it may decrease the rainfall.’
“Why do they keep it that way? They’re cautious.”
Axisa said many people have a misconception that cloud seeders break up the formations of clouds, or steal potential rainfall from surrounding areas. Cloud seeding only harvests moisture from clear air surrounding a cloud, not from other clouds, he said.
“We’re accused of robbing Peter to pay Paul, or taking moisture away from other clouds,” he said. “Are you doing this? No, you are not. Are you affecting that cloud? No. Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul? No. That’s just ignorance.”

Ex-buffalo hunter was one of this area’s first well-diggers
George Causey was a career buffalo hunter. But in 1882, the herds began to thin and Causey was forced to try his hand at ranching near Ranger Lake in Lea County.
The land he settled had several springs, but an unusually dry year forced him to dredge deeper and deeper into the lakes for water.
While digging, Causey struck a shallow flow of abundant water. So he dug a well by hand and built a windmill over it.
Curry County historian Don McAlavy said Causey’s find led to a contract with rancher Phelps White, who hired Causey to dig wells, erect windmills and create watering places for White’s herds on the Llano Estacado.
Causey soon enlisted his brothers John and Bob Causey in the well-digging business.
The process of digging a well was slow. They used a drill powered by a mule team. Well casings, water pipes and lumber for windmills were brought from Midland, Texas, McAlavy said.
Eventually, the Causeys’ efforts made the Llano Estacado an ideal location for even small ranchers to make a living.
Then ranching cost George Causey his life in 1903.
He was rounding up a herd of mustang mares when some of them broke away, frightening Causey’s horse into bucking him off.
Causey was taken by chuck wagon on a three-day search for medical care, and eventually was diagnosed with a severe spinal column injury. His condition never improved. Forced to sell his ranch holdings to pay doctor and hospital bills, he became depressed.
His nephew, V.H. Whitlock, who came with his brother and mother in the mid-1880s to live with Causey, recalled the death as follows in his memoirs “Cowboy Life on the Llano Estacado:”
“One morning while eating breakfast at his ranch, my brother Ralph and I heard a muffled gunshot. Running into his (George’s) room, we found him lying in bed with smoke coming from under the covers. Raising the blanket, we found a .45-caliber Colt clasped in his hand. He was buried in a cemetery at Roswell. Thus ended the career of a widely known pioneer of the Llano Estacado, who led a rough and dangerous life during the years he helped settle that region.”