A federal appeals court ruled favorably on the plan to use 100% percent sewage effluent for snowmaking at Arizona Snowbowl in Flagstaff, but protestors concerned with health issues and desecration of the mountain vow to continue to express their concerns.
Arizona Snowbowl, a ski resort in Flagstaff, Ariz., is proceeding with plans to make snow for the coming season using 100 percent sewage effluent, despite continuing objections from those who say it will lead to “a disaster, culturally and environmentally,” The New York Times reports.
The resort secured a favorable ruling in February from a Federal appeals court for its upgrade plan that includes using effluent to make artificial snow. The United States Forest Service, which owns the land where the resort is located, is on record as saying the treated water meets the highest standards — just below drinking water — and that is already used to irrigate golf courses, soccer fields and parks, according to Corbin Newman, a regional forester.
“Snow-making has become necessary because of climate change,” Newman said. He and other supporters of the plan say that using the effluent will allow for a more consistent ski season and bring money into neighboring Flagstaff, which contracted to sell Snowbowl the water from its sewage treatment plant, the Times reported.
Still, a coalition of environmental groups and 13 American Indian tribes, which consider the mountain sacred and view the wastewater snow as a desecration, vow to continue to express their opposition to the idea. “It’s a disaster, culturally and environmentally,” said Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that lost on appeal. McKinnon worries about the impact of using the effluent on the delicate alpine tundra, as well as to human health, should skiers fall into the treated sewer-water snow and ingest it, the Times reported.
Protestors also include Klee Benally, a member of the Navajo tribe, who as part of his 10-year-long protest against the ski-resort development in Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks, which has included clear-cutting 74 acres of forest, has chained himself to excavators and faced down bulldozers, the Times reported. The Navajo and other American Indian tribes involved with protests and legal action against the development consider the mountain sacred and view use of the wastewater snow as a desecration.
Protests against the development have also included hunger strikes and led to multiple arrests, and the issue has become a political jostling point for Arizona Senator John McCain and the Obama administration. At one point, the Times reported, Snowbowl’s owner, Eric Borowsky, declared that if the resort lost its legal bid to make snow, “radical groups would achieve their ultimate goal of control of our nation’s resources.”
The Times report said “the battle has put this picturesque city, about an hour southeast of the Grand Canyon, on the frontier of what many say is the new war for the West’s public lands. It does not involve ranchers, miners or loggers, but centers on the burgeoning outdoor recreation industry, which some say is expanding at the expense of the environment.”
Half of all alpine ski areas in the United States, including the big names of Vail, Aspen and Lake Tahoe, are on public land, the Times report noted, and many of them are now faced with the choice of expanding or going out of business. “A ski resort, to remain competitive, has to hit certain dates. They have to guarantee they’ll be open by Thanksgiving, or Christmas at the latest,” said Jim Bedwell, director of the Forest Service’s Recreation and Heritage Resources.
“Everyone does well when the ski area does well,” added J. R. Murray, General Manager of Snowbowl.
But Indians who pray and hold ceremonies on the Arizona mountain feel their concerns are being too easily swept aside. “Our culture can still be reduced to something that is less important than the profit margin on a ski resort,” Benally told the Times. “That’s a very, very hard place to be in.”
The wastewater snow, Indians say, will ruin a mountain they consider sacred ground as well as the ecosystem, a concern shared by environmental groups. When it melts, it “could degrade water quality of the aquifers,” said Rob Smith, regional staff director at the Sierra Club.
City officials, like Brad Hill, Flagstaff’s utilities director, say they have been “very proactive” in ensuring that the water is safe. That is why, in addition to the federal study, the city conducted its own water tests.
It hired Catherine R. Propper, a scientist and professor at Northern Arizona University, who found that Flagstaff’s water contains endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, including hormones, antibiotics, antidepressants, pharmaceuticals and steroids.
“We don’t know what effect freezing and thawing is going to have on the chemical compounds,” she told the Times. “We don’t know what UV is going to do to them. Some of the compounds will bind to the soil; some will get into the aquifers. It is a very complicated system that we know very little about.”
The substances were not considered in the Forest Service’s impact assessment because federal guidelines do not require doing so, and their non-status is part of why Flagstaff can consider its water safe despite Dr. Propper’s findings. And even she is quick to say that “a mouthful of snow is not going to make the difference,” the Times reported.
The Environmental Protection Agency says it is studying the chemicals, and Flagstaff and Snowbowl both say that if they become regulated, the city “will scale treatment to come into compliance,” according to Kevin Burke, city manager.
“It’s an Old West mentality: let’s go forward and assess the damage later,” said Benally, referring to unregulated mining that went on for decades and left a legacy of environmental degradation. That reality is particularly acute, the Times reported, on the sprawling Navajo Indian reservation bordering Flagstaff where Benally grew up. Forty percent of the population there does not have indoor plumbing; one out of three does not have access to clean drinking water.
For now, Flagstaff business owners are gearing up for the ski season, hoping the fake snow will “generate as much as $35 million for the local economy during the winter,” said Julie Pastrick of the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce.
Asked whether he thinks the protests will continue, Murray, Snowbowl’s manager, expressed a certain weariness with the controversy, saying, “I have no idea.”
Benally, however, made it clear he was undeterred. “It’s not over,” he told the Times. “Until the Obama administration addresses the issue, we will continue to lay bodies in front of Snowbowl’s machinery.”rss