Water group seeks more input on snowmaking source

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) May 2010

A proposal to swap reclaimed wastewater for more expensive drinking-quality water for snowmaking at a northern Arizona ski resort got a cold reception during May before the Flagstaff Water Commission.

Under the proposal, the city of Flagstaff would allow reclaimed wastewater to seep into the ground and be pumped from city wells for use at the Arizona Snowbowl, instead of shipping the water directly from a wastewater treatment to the resort just outside Flagstaff.

Members of the public spoke overwhelmingly against the commission making an immediate recommendation to the City Council on the plan. They instead pushed for more time to allow residents and area tribes to weigh in.

The commission agreed and sent the proposal back to city officials for review. City Manager Kevin Burke had planned to take the proposal to the City Council on June 8, but said he likely would reconsider.

Spraying artificial snow on the San Francisco Peaks that at least 13 tribes regard as sacred has been a contentious issue for years. The tribes claim it would infringe on their religious rights, while Snowbowl owners say their business cannot survive without it.

Flagstaff’s current contract with the Arizona Snowbowl calls for the city to supply 1.5 million gallons of reclaimed wastewater per day for 120 days a year to the ski resort. Area tribes fought the plan but lost at the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been withholding permits for the construction of snowmaking equipment while trying to forge a compromise among the parties at the request of the tribes. Arizona Sen. John McCain challenged the USDA’s inaction, but the agency said the high court’s decision did not require the U.S. Forest Service under USDA to issue a notice to proceed.

The USDA sent a letter to tribes in January saying that it intended to move forward with an alternate water source and would help offset the increased cost to supply it – about $11 million. If the Snowbowl used every drop of its allocation, the cost would be about $10.6 million over 20 years. The impact to the city’s finances and water resources would be neutral, city officials said.

Burke, who said he was approached by attorneys with the Navajo and Hopi tribes in support of the proposed contract change as a less-offensive way to proceed, brought the proposal before the water commission. He said the issue of whether snowmaking would proceed wasn’t up for discussion, only the source of the water.

“What we’ve attempted to say is, ‘Let’s see if we can make this situation better,”’ he said. “Because our only other alternative is the status quo.”

But Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa and Havasupai Councilwoman Carletta Tilousi said the tribes’ official position remains the same.

“Although we lost the suit, it is very clear from there, as far as we’re concerned, that no water of any type is to be used,” Shingoitewa said.

Jim McCarthy, a nonvoting water commission member, said what appeared to be a plan to make snowmaking more palatable to area tribes wasn’t working.

“I could live with that if it solved or significantly mitigated the problem with the tribes,” he said. “But I’m not hearing that.”

Visitation at the 777-acre Arizona Snowbowl that opened in 1937 on Forest Service land fluctuates from year to year depending on the amount of snowfall. The resort wants to spray man-made snow to ensure it can open around Thanksgiving each year and close around the third week of April, potentially bringing in 250,000 visitors a year.

A pending lawsuit in federal court in Arizona contends the Forest Service failed to consider the human health risks of ingesting artificial snow made with reclaimed wastewater. Arguments in that case are set to be heard June 14, according to the plaintiffs.