Brown Snow

A three-year wastewater controversy gets settled at Arizona Snowbowl.
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Making snow is a fairly simple endeavor. Wait for the temp to drop, pump water and compressed air through a hose, and voilà. But add treated wastewater and several tribes of upset Native Americans and things become more complex, as Arizona Snowbowl found out. In August, after three years of litigation, the small ski area outside Flagstaff won a decision in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals allowing it to make artificial snow—using treated wastewater.

In 2005, members of the Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai, Yavapai Apache, and White Mountain Apache tribes filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court against the U.S. Forest Service and Snowbowl, arguing that the use of treated wastewater would desecrate the San Francisco Peaks that they hold sacred. Six months later the court ruled in favor of the Forest Service and Arizona Snowbowl. Two years after that, the tribes appealed, won a reversal, and derailed the snowmaking. The ski area, along with the Forest Service, then asked for a review by the court. They won and, six years after Arizona Snowbowl first proposed artificial snowmaking, the ski area can proceed with the upgrade.

“What’s at stake was the viability of this ski area,” says Snowbowl general manager J.R. Murray. “Some seasons we were open 24 days, some seasons 124 days.” With no water source nearby in the Arizona mountains, Snowbowl has been hauling in potable water with a tanker truck for the past 70 years. Reclaimed water was the only option for snowmaking. While no one wants to ski on brown snow, Murray insists that using treated wastewater is not an ecological concern. “We use the highest-grade reclaimed water. It’s as clean, if not cleaner, than the rivers, streams, and ponds that other ski areas use for snowmaking.”

Snowbowl hopes to have its snow guns a-sprayin’ by the 2009–2010 season. That is, if it’s not still tied up in litigation. Howard Shanker, attorney for the tribes, says his clients will likely appeal to the Supreme Court. “The issue is bigger than the ski area,” Shanker says. “This is about Native Americans’ rights.”

-SKIING MAGAZINE, November 2008

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