Hidden deep within the bureaucratic folds of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which devotes most of its resources to overseeing cosmetologists, air conditioner repairmen, auctioneers and the like, is the state's weather modification bureau.
It's not nearly as post-apocalyptic as it sounds. You might use the term "cloud seeding," or, taking another step toward obfuscation, "rain enhancement." In layman's terms, that means flying small aircraft into gathering storms to coax more precipitation from clouds -- which, admittedly, still sounds a tad Orwellian. But if Texas were really serious about controlling and changing the weather, they'd at least give George Bomar an assistant.
Bomar is a one-man shop, the TDLR's sole meteorologist, charged with licensing and regulating the state's weather modification projects, of which there are currently six covering about 30 million acres in West and South Texas. All are run by coalitions of local governments and water districts. There used to be twice as many, but the legislature stopped funding cloud-seeding programs a decade ago. (It paid half their cost, shelling out about $14 million between 1997 and 2004).
"Some used the state money to purchase contract services," Bomar says. "Once state money ran out, the cost to them went up by factor of two couldn't afford to pay. Those projects that used their money and state match to invest in aircrafts, systems, personnel even, when the state money went away ... they were able to keep the programs running."
Cloud seeding isn't as quixotic as it sounds. The idea isn't to make storm clouds suddenly gather in a clear blue sky but to cause more of the moisture in nascent rain clouds to condense into droplets. Rain drops typically form around ice crystals present in the cloud. When clouds are seeded, typically with silver iodide -- whose crystalline structure is nearly identical to natural ice crystals -- more of a cloud's moisture condenses into rain.
The method's effectiveness has been borne out in academic studies and through Bomar's monitoring of cloud seeding projects in Texas.
"The analyses that we do year in and year out show that the projects are being run optimally, aircraft are getting to seedable storms, and [we are] seeing a greater yield from those that are treated," he says.
And so, while the legislature considers investing $2 billion to build new reservoirs and water-supply projects, Bomar wonders why cloud-seeding isn't a bigger part of the conversation.
"In my estimation, it is worthy of being a key component of any long-term plan to address our water shortage," he says. "It has demonstrated that it has promise, and it's no doubt that as we go along we'll develop better systems more effective seeding agents" that further increase rain yield.
An example of how this might help an increasingly urban state comes from San Antonio, where the local water district has been seeding storms in neighboring counties since 1997 to help replenish the Edwards Aquifer.
But there's a reason that there have been no new cloud seeding projects launched in Texas over the past decade. Without state funding, it's cost prohibitive for most local governments to start programs of their own. The same goes with the type of research that would yield the improvements Bomar hopes for. Right now, what little cloud-seeding money there is goes toward buying fuel and silver iodide and paying pilots.
Unless and until lawmakers can be convinced that cloud seeding is, indeed, a viable component of a long-term water plan, that doesn't seem likely to change.