Flagstaff sticks with treated wastewater for snow

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) September 2010

The Flagstaff City Council has voted to stick with its original contract to send treated wastewater to a northern Arizona ski resort for snowmaking, but skiers won't be heading down the slopes on artificial snow anytime soon.

The council voted 5-2 Sept. 2 to reaffirm a 2002 contract that calls for 552 acre feet of treated wastewater per year to go to the Arizona Snowbowl, essentially rejecting a proposal to use potable water or a combination of the water sources.

By sticking with treated wastewater, a pending lawsuit challenging the health risks of the water can move forward. The lawsuit in federal court in Phoenix is expected to tie the hands of Snowbowl owners for years, delaying construction of snowmaking equipment.

“I'm glad I'll hopefully have my day in court and justice will be served,” said one of the plaintiffs and a Navajo tribal member, Clayson Benally.

Snowbowl owner Eric Borowsky said he's committed to following through with snowmaking and was certain the resolution of the lawsuit would be in the resort's favor.

“If you don't have snowmaking, the question is not if you'll go out of business, it's when,” he said.

Snowmaking has been a contentious issue in this mountain town. With varying snow levels year to year, the success of the resort never is certain. American Indian tribes have fought snowmaking for years, contending it would desecrate the San Francisco Peaks that they consider sacred and liken to family.

The special City Council meeting came after the U.S. Department of Agriculture suggested that treated wastewater be swapped for potable water as a compromise among the parties. The council heard hours of debate over the issue Monday but postponed a vote until Thursday.

Councilman Art Babbott said he based his choice of treated wastewater not on the tribes' sentiments toward the peaks or the recommendation of the USDA but on how best to provide for Flagstaff citizens now and in the future.

“We will make very bad policies here if we allow entities outside our jurisdiction to dictate what we do,” he said. “And if that means losing appeasement, so be it.”

Councilwoman Coral Evans took issue with the USDA stepping into the debate last year after the tribes lost a yearslong court battle over religious freedom.

“I think they re-created a bad situation and made it even worse,” said Evans, who voted for use of treated wastewater.

The U.S. Forest Service under the USDA ultimately granted a permit in July for the construction of snowmaking equipment after it became evident that tribal leaders said they would not support snowmaking regardless of the water source.

Council members Mayor Sara Presler and Karla Brewster both favored sending the more expensive potable water up a pipeline to the resort. The USDA had pledged to offset the cost of the potable water if the council chose that option.

Presler said she found it “drastically irresponsible” to sell a future water source but would rather utilize one that is considered of higher quality.

A move to allow the Snowbowl to use potable water for the first five years, clearing the way for snowmaking construction, then switch to treated wastewater for the remaining 15 years failed.