The Rainmakers of the American Southwest

Meg Bernhard

Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, February 2018. Photo © TravelerSD / Alamy

I learned of the cloud seeders in Red Rock Canyon from a friend’s husband. It was late autumn in Beatty, Nevada, a windswept town two hours north of Las Vegas, and we’d just returned from a hike in Death Valley. ‘Have you heard of these people trying to manufacture clouds in Red Rock?’ he asked me. He was sceptical, and slightly horrified. Their intention, he said, was to play nature to relieve the area’s severe drought.

The programme to ‘Make it Rain’ was launched by a non-profit group called Save Red Rock, formed in 2001 to protect the canyon from exploitation. They aren’t actually trying to manufacture clouds; rather, with scientists at the Desert Research Institute in Las Vegas, they’re introducing ice-forming dust into existing clouds to encourage or increase precipitation. Cloud seeding sounds whimsical, but it speaks to the desperation of living in the American Southwest, which has suffered a relentless megadrought since 2000.

The Colorado River, which provides water to millions of people in seven American states, the lands of more than twenty Indigenous communities, and much of northwestern Mexico, is in crisis. Its largest reservoir, Lake Mead, holds less than a third of its capacity and may be approaching ‘dead pool’, the level at which water can no longer flow downstream from the Hoover Dam. The lake has turned into an apocalyptic symbol of the crisis: human remains have appeared as the water recedes, and a ‘bathtub ring’ of paler rock that used to be submerged is visible from afar.

Three hundred miles to the northeast, Utah’s Great Salt Lake has lost 73 per cent of its water since 1850. Robert Smithson’s earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970), a 500-metre coil of black basalt built into what was once lakebed, used to be entirely submerged. Today it is fully visible, and water is unlikely to reach the jetty ever again. Soil across the Southwest has dried out, leading to increasingly frequent and severe dust storms. Creosote, one of North America’s most drought-resistant plants, is dying in Death Valley.

Indigenous groups, such as the Southern Paiute and the Mojave, have lived in the arid Southwest for thousands of years, but it was the creation of Lake Mead in the 1930s that made mass development and settlement possible.

I was born in a region of southern California that depends on the Colorado River five years before the megadrought began. I know to turn off the tap between dishes and to take showers that last five minutes or less. Growing up, we talked about ‘going to the snow’ when we wanted to visit the mountains; snow rarely came to us, low in the Temecula Valley, and after a while it wasn’t guaranteed in the mountains either.

Rainfall was a special event. We’d sprint outside during downpours, and sometimes play hide and seek under the dripping canopies of our neighbour’s oak trees. After the rain, frogs would sing and the scrubby brown hills would burst into green and orange, blooming with poppies. Walking down the street I had to be careful not to crunch on a snail’s shell. These were rare delights. More common was the thick heat rising from asphalt on summer days, the scent of wildfire smoke blowing in with the Santa Ana winds.

In Las Vegas, where I moved around a year and a half ago, the heat and drought are more extreme than what I experienced growing up. My lips are always chapped, my hair is always static, and in the winter my hands crack and bleed. The average temperature in August is over 40°C. I once walked for twenty minutes down a busy road in the heat and had to lie down for the rest of the day. During dust storms, the sky dims to a jaundice yellow and loose dirt presses in through the cracks under windows and doors. Humidity in the summer drops below 20 per cent, dry enough to make your throat sore.

In June 2021, the state of Nevada passed a law banning ‘non-functional turf’ in the city of Las Vegas — the first legislation of its kind in the United States. Last summer county officials banned swimming pools bigger than sixty square metres on residential properties. Southern Nevada gets 90 per cent of its water from Lake Mead and these new laws are an acknowledgment that our current levels of consumption cannot continue. With the non-native grass and greenery growing in the city’s wealthier subdivisions and all around the Las Vegas Strip, we are fooling ourselves into forgetfulness. We forget we live in America’s driest desert.

Under the new law, ‘non-functional turf’ includes strips outside office buildings and in roadway medians, but lawns at single family residences are exempt. There’s one in front of the house I’m renting with two friends. The city has imposed watering restrictions, however, punishable by hefty fines. During the winter, we’re allowed to water only one day a week, and during the summer, only between the hours of 7 p.m. and 11 a.m. Sprinklers are prohibited on Sundays all year round. I turned our automatic sprinklers off after it rained in mid-October and never turned them back on. The lawn went yellow and brown, as it should be.

The US Drought Monitor publishes a colour-coded map every Thursday: light orange represents ‘moderate drought’, tangerine is for ‘severe’, and bright red is for ‘extreme’. Maroon, for ‘exceptional drought’, has disappeared from the California and Nevada maps following heavy winter rains. But this volume of rain is not necessarily welcome. Prolonged drought makes it more difficult for soil to absorb water, and the water instead slides off the ground’s surface. In January, much of California was hit by several terrible storms and atmospheric rivers that resulted in flooding and mudslides, killing at least twenty people. Newspaper headlines asked if the biblical rains might relieve the drought in the long-term, but the science is clear: even rivers in the sky are not enough.

Last summer was Nevada’s wettest monsoon season in a decade. I was driving on the freeway one July evening, the first of the monsoon nights, when the sky opened. By the time I pulled off ten minutes later, the road beneath an underpass had turned into a pond, stranding one driver in their car and leaving the rest of us to make illegal U-turns over the median. The drive home was risky; at every traffic light a new river appeared, but I crept through without hydroplaning. Only later did I remember the National Weather Service guidance on flash flooding: ‘Turn around, don’t drown.’ From the backyard, for hours, I watched lightning split the sky, wind whip the telephone wires and water thrash onto the dry, hard ground. And still, it is not enough.

Rains this winter have been lighter, and quicker, but more frequent than in recent memory. A storm this week turned the sky milky with dust and snow clouds, and officials in southern California issued a rare blizzard warning for mountain passes. Water in the desert is always remarkable, so a few days after a storm in January, a friend and I went hiking up a box canyon whose river had reappeared after a dry spell. Clear water flowed below oak and manzanita, and we scrambled up boulders to avoid getting our feet too wet. At the canyon’s back wall, a waterfall gushed over slick gray rock. It was damp and shady and cool, and for a few hours I thought mostly of water, little of drought. I read later that Save Red Rock had spent the night of the storm seeding clouds.

This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.


  • 24 February 2023 at 3:27pm
    sterilepromontory says:
    As a culture, we don't know when to stop. The creation of Lake Mead was followed by overpopulation. When highways are widened, traffic increases until it's just as bad as ever. If a problem like hip pain or kidney failure is covered by insurance, surgeons ramp up the number of hip replacements or dialysis machines. Fishermen will fish until the last fish is gone. A plastic bag is useful. A zillion plastic bags chokes a planet. Not until the situation is dire does anyone listen, and often not even then. Is it a human problem? A cultural problem?

    • 9 March 2023 at 6:34pm
      Todd Archer says: @ sterilepromontory
      A capitalism problem.