Six protesters were arrested last week at Arizona Snowbowl outside Flagstaff after chaining themselves to excavation equipment used to create a pipeline for snowmaking water. Several suffered minor injuries resisting arrest on trespassing charges and one was treated at the hospital after suffering symptoms of heat exhaustion.
The protests were the latest incident in a years-long battle over the tiny ski area in the San Francisco Peaks. Native Americans considered the land sacred and have fought both expansion and snowmaking, which they argue is an environmental nightmare because it uses treated sewage.
“This waste water pipeline will poison the environment and the children who may eat snow made from it,” said Evan Hawbaker, one of the protesters who locked themselves to the excavator. “Snowbowl plans to spray millions of gallons of waste water snow, which is filled with cancer causing and other harmful contaminants, as well as clear-cut over 30,000 trees.”
Arizona Snowbowl probably isn’t on your radar. It’s not as well known as Taos, another ski hill located in country that’s otherwise thought of as desert. But a decade-long battle over its expansion has broad implications for ski resorts across the United States, and probably beyond.
Although not on the national ski map, the resort is important to Arizona skiers. If you live in Flagstaff, it’s your local hill, just 17 miles north of town. If you live in Phoenix or Scottsdale or Prescott, it’s your only real option if you don’t want to fly to Colorado or Utah.
By most skier standards, this hill, founded in 1938, is tiny. It covers just 777 acres of Coconino National Forest, in Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks wilderness. Its expansion would add about 77 acres of terrain and two high-speed lifts, as well as 205 acres of snowmaking.
It’s the last part of that equation that’s proven so divisive. This past fall the Flagstaff city council voted to allow waste water to be used for snowmaking. The so-called “A+” rated water is sewage water that’s been treated to a potable standard — but “potable” doesn’t mean the same standards as safe drinking water. Rather, the water is treated the same way that some municipalities in America recycle water for irrigating golf courses, ball fields, and parks.
Such reclaimed water would raise hackles under most conditions, but the matter cuts even deeper if you’re Navajo, Hopi, or one of the 13 Native American tribes that consider these peaks sacred. For the Navajo, the peaks mark the westernmost corner of their homeland. For the Hopi, it’s a kind of heaven, where your spirit goes when you die and also your soul’s place of origination.
These tribes sued after a U.S. Forest Service finding favored the mountain’s expansion and then lost on appeal before the full Ninth Circuit of the Supreme Court. The court focused on a black and white reality: If the tribes were already getting screwed by the existence of the ski area and weren’t fighting to reclaim the land for themselves, it said, they didn’t have a case. (An earlier attempt to force the ski area to sell to the tribes failed, partly because the asking price was considered above market value.)
THE UP TO 180 MILLION GALLONS OF WASTE WATER used each season used for snowmaking remains a huge thorn for the tribes, and the fight portends challenges or battles over the standards for water used in recreation. While some Australian and Canadian ski areas use recycled waste water for snowmaking, most ski areas that make snow in the States capture runoff and melt, filter it, and re-use it. But they’re not using treated toilet water. In the future, they might feel forced to do so, because water is only going to grow scarcer in the States.
Also affecting the issue: The EPA is currently studying how pharmaceuticals and other toxins impact wildlife when used for irrigation. One outcome could be that we have to do a better job cleaning up the water.
Irrigation water, and even drinking water, often contains endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which have been shown to alter the reproductive function of aquaculture. And, says Dr. Catherine Propper, a biologist at Northern Arizona University who studies water, “Our endocrine system isn’t that different from those of fish and frogs.” So beyond the question of whether you want to ski on treated waste water snow is the issue of eating fish that swam in Viagra water — and what consuming this water might do to you and your kids.
Propper cautions that reducing these toxins in all potable water will be expensive. More stringent standards from the EPA would mean costlier water across the board, from drinking to snowmaking, and snowmaking is already expensive.
If you want to see how these water issues are playing out in a larger setting, consider the battle for water rights between Summit County (home of Breckenridge, Keystone, etc.) and the entirety of Front Range communities in Colorado. A recent study predicts that Colorado’s population will boom in the coming decades, adding tens of millions of people. Denver’s predicted to run short on water starting by 2016, according to a 2005 study, and Summit County is also growing. While most ski areas in Summit County already recycle their water for snowmaking, they don’t use filtered sewer watered. Yet.
There’s one other Native American twist to the Arizona Snowbowl case that could impact other ski resorts. The USDA is revising its policies on how the federal government treats lands considered sacred by Native Americans that are located on Forest Service lands and currently is holding listening sessions with tribes around the country. A new policy is expected by November, and while the USDA is holding its cards close to its chest, there could be changes in how the government addresses conflicts on sacred lands. That’s unlikely to have an impact on Snowbowl, where, despite the recent protests, the waste water snowmaking is expect to proceed. But the rest of the U.S. is dotted with sites that could be deemed sacred, even those that have already been developed for other uses. Like skiing.
Photo: San Francisco Peaks by Tyler Finvold
This environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.