Man-made snow from reclaimed sewage at heart of Hopi, ski resort fight

Tribe taking a new approach in decade-long battle to stop fake snow sprays on what it calls sacred land

Skiers at the Arizona Snowbowl resort don’t seem to mind the fake snow, generated from reclaimed sewage.
Tom Marcinko

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — For 10 years, a coalition of Native American groups and environmental activists in this Western mountain community has tried to stop a ski resort from spraying artificial snow — made from wastewater — on land that 13 tribes consider sacred.

Until now, it’s lost every one of five major legal actions against the U.S. Forest Service, which first approved the sale of wastewater to the Arizona Snowbowl resort in 2004. Since the winter of 2012, the privately owned Snowbowl has prospered through the cold but dry winter season with the frozen flakes, manufactured by snow-making machines on the San Francisco Peaks, 11,500 feet above sea level.

The cultural argument — as one activist put it, “What part of ‘sacred’ don’t you understand?” — has failed in the legal arena. Now the Hopi tribe is trying to stop the faux snow with arguments that could carry more weight outside Native American culture. Tribal officials are arguing that the snow is bad for the environment and for people too.

Last month the Arizona Supreme Court greenlit a Hopi lawsuit against Flagstaff, which so far this season has sold to Snowbowl about 134 acre-feet, or about 44 million gallons, for $77,645. The contract allows for a total of 552 acre-feet, or about 180 million gallons, to be moved through a 15-mile pipeline that Snowbowl built through the forest in 2011.

The case is a potential landmark decision on balancing modern land use with traditional beliefs, said Brennan R. Lagasse, who wrote his master’s thesis on the Snowbowl controversy and now teaches a course on sustainability at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Nev.

“These are the kinds of issues we need to figure out,” Lagasse said.

The land in question is not on the Hopi or any other reservation, but is part of the Coconino National Forest. The U.S. Forest Service has allowed the area to be used for skiing since the 1930s, but the Hopi and a dozen other tribes consider the land part of their religious heritage. The Hopi date their settlement of the land back to the year 1150, and note the USFS has designated the land as Traditional Cultural Property.

Michael Goodstein, the tribe’s lawyer, based in Washington, D.C., said his client is going ahead with the litigation, though he’s not sure when it will come to trial.

Yellow snow?

The Hopi face an uphill fight. Skiing and snowboarding are big business in Flagstaff. So even before the snow blowers started to blast, Snowbowl foes took aim at public opinion, relying heavily on a yuck factor.

“Arizona Snowbowl starts making fake snow from treated sewage ... and it’s yellow,” read one activist press release. It made national headlines too.

Snowbowl general manager J.R. Murray sighs when the subject comes up. When the blowers went online in 2012, he said, there was some discoloration, but it came from rust inside the pipes.

“It’s a nonstory,” he said. 

Signs posted around the resort warn skiers.
Tom Marcinko

The fake flakes passed inspection by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality in December. The agency did demand more signs to warn against letting the icy crystals pass your lips. The purple “Do not drink” signs, which tout the use of recycled water as a conservation measure, are easy to spot.

On a Jan. 30 visit, the snow looked nothing but white, from both the bottom of the ski-lift slope and the top of the beginner’s slope. The slopes, bar and restaurant were busy with skiers and snowboarders. The resort opened for the season the day after Thanksgiving and counted 41,000 visitors for the holiday season alone.

“We’ve done quite well this year so far,” Murray said. Without the snow blowers, “we would still be closed.”

A white-haired Iowa couple at Snowbowl said they’d heard about the snow-making controversy but were unfazed.

“He’s happy” he got to ski a hill steeper than any in Iowa, Cheryl said of her husband, Jay. He said the man-made stuff seems more slippery than the real thing. But he didn’t notice any strange colors.

Employees at the resort were thankful for the fake snow, noting closures in previous years when Mother Nature’s snow was a no-show. One employee at the resort-owned hotel on US 180-W, at the bottom of the winding mountain road that leads to the resort, sounded cynical about tribal claims that hinted at the tension between the two sides.

“They wouldn’t object if it was a sacred casino,” he said, referring to several Native American–owned gambling spots in Arizona. 

Man-made controversy

Snowbowl supporters are quick to point out that it’s not unusual for cities to use recycled wastewater to irrigate golf courses and public parks, especially in the parched Southwest. Other ski resorts use it, too. Some communities have gone further. In Orange County, Calif., for example, the drinking water comes from wastewater, recycled to potable levels of cleanliness.

But Snowbowl is the world’s first ski facility to use 100 percent reclaimed sewage to make its snow. Nobody claims it’s 100 percent clean, though. Labeled “class A+,” the cleanest wastewater going, it’s supposed to be free of fecal coliform bacteria — in four of seven daily samples.

If a skier or boarder takes a spill and accidentally gets a mouthful of manufactured snow, it could be a concern.

Flagstaff officials won’t discuss a lawsuit in progress, though spokeswoman Kimberly Ott said the city hasn’t tested the snow. The resort lies outside city limits.

Flagstaff is making its own artificial snow this weekend. The Dew Downtown Flagstaff Urban Ski and Snowboard Festival, Saturday and Sunday, features ski and snowboard competitions along the city’s main drag. But Flagstaff is using drinking water to make snow. City officials say they applied too late for a state wastewater permit but also admit Snowbowl has made the use of treated sewage a controversial topic.

Last year the city convened a panel of scientists to evaluate the wastewater it was selling to Snowbowl.

“No data at the present time suggest that the continued use of reclaimed water poses an undue risk to human health,” the experts concluded. But they also recommended testing new water-cleaning technologies and raised questions about substances that include the antibiotic triclosan, the insect repellent DEET, caffeine and antibiotic-resistant genes.

The Hopi legal complaint, from 2011 and recently given new life, also suggests possible dangers to wildlife. Environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity, also worry about windblown snow harming a yellow-flowering local plant, the groundsel or ragwort, which is listed as an endangered species.

High and dry

While the blizzard-bearing polar vortex pummeled much of the nation, it left the Southwest untouched. Flagstaff is one of a handful of U.S. cities, particularly in the West, that are wishing for a touch of vortex.

Where Route 66 curves away from City Hall, a sign flashes, “Think snow.”

At 7,000 feet above sea level, Flagstaff gets cold enough for snow. But it’s a dry cold. So far, winter has brought only two significant snowfalls. The area almost hit a record of 40 dry days, broken by a few stray drops on Day 39, Jan. 30.

This tourism-dependent city has recently weathered some close calls. Last year’s federal government shutdown drove tourists from local national parks, including the Grand Canyon. The southward move to Phoenix of a popular attraction — training camp for the Arizona Cardinals — worried bar owners and restaurateurs. To the surprise of many, those setbacks didn’t hurt the local economy.

But merchants are happy to see — and sell — skis and snowboards. 

‘Think snow’

Business interests are hard to square with the assertion that the San Francisco Peaks “are the single most important sacred place the Hopi have,” as the 2011 complaint put it. “Every month Tribe members go to the Peaks for prayers, and during some months Tribe members collect water, greens and herbs for the ceremonies.”

Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi’s cultural preservation office, bristles as he recalls being asked by U.S. attorneys during 2009 testimony, “You have 19,000 acres to worship in. Why does 770 acres (for Snowbowl) matter?”

“It’s ridiculous that we should have to defend our religion,” Kuwanwisiwma said, adding that the Hopi consider development on any part of the region to be desecration. For the Hopi, litigating on the basis of health and the environment is the latest means to the end of preserving their land.

Meanwhile, Flagstaff greeted February with a forecast of 0.3 inches of snow, according to the Weather Underground. And the Arizona Snowbowl itself is plastered with “Think snow” signs — on the whiteboard menu in the cafeteria and on the Highway 180 hotel sign.

Even Snowbowl thinks it’s better when the real white stuff falls from the sky. In this controversy, it’s the only point of agreement. 

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