The Peaks in Context - A Tale of two Contracts
On August 30th, 2010 close to 800 people packed into Sinagua High School’s auditorium, where the city council held a special meeting to decide whether or not to amend the city’s water contract with the Arizona Snowbowl. Scanning the dark room, from peach colored walls through the scarcely vacant maroon stadium seating, housed a crowd that was not only Flagstaff, but a cross section of northern Arizona, in all it’s colorful glory. There were students, Flagstaff citizens young and old, local social and environmental activists, Native Americans representing regional tribes spanning hundreds of miles. There were snowboarders and skiers, business owners, city staff and members from various boards and commissions.
Nowhere else but Flagstaff will you find a cowboy sitting next to a man in a shirt and tie, next to a man with dreadlocks, next to a Native elder, next to a woman wearing a Crass sweatshirt. Many folks who supported Snowbowl and snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks wore small signs that said “Vote Snow,” while many from the opposition wore a modified version that said, “No Snow.”
And, it seemed, everyone wanted to speak. The meeting lasted roughly 7 and a half hours, ending about 12:30 am. The Noise observed that roughly 2/3’s of those in attendance were against any amended contract with the Arizona Snowbowl.
Before public comments, Councilwoman Celia Barotz grilled the City’s Utility Manager, Randy Pellatz about future water availability. “Unequivocally can you say that there is no way, without a shadow of a doubt, that this will affect our water supply? How do you reconcile this proposal with the city’s commitment to sustainability? It seems they are not consistent.” Her questions were greeted immediately by overwhelming cheers and applause from the audience. When pressed to answer the first question, Pellatz said “no,” that he could not guarantee that selling drinking water to Snowbowl wouldn’t impact future water supplies.
Similarly Councilman Art Babbot said, “we need to think of this discussion not in the 2- to 5- to 10-year window, but in the 10- to 20- to 100 year window.” These sentiments had been brought up previously when the question of which water to sell to Snowbowl was introduced to the Water Commission the month before. Jim McCarthy from the Planning and Zoning Commission, and a nonvoting member of the Water Commission said that even 100 year plan was not enough – that the city, if they were interested in sustainability, needed to look 500 years ahead. “Flagstaff’s population could easily double in the next several decades,” he explained to The Noise. “100 years is not sustainable.”
On the formal agenda, made available to the public a few days before the meeting, the City Council was to decide on one of three options. A) to replace the existing agreement to allow Snowbowl and the Federal government the option to use either reclaimed water (reflecting the original contract, voted on in 2002) or recovered reclaimed water (which is defined as potable, or of drinking quality). B) To stick with the original contract to provide reclaimed water, or C) to amend the current contract, and sell the Snowbowl drinking water.
If the City voted down the use of drinking water, the current lawsuit, challenging the Forest Service’s compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act in adequately addressing the human health risks of using 100% reclaimed water on the Peaks, thus delaying construction. If the city voted in Snowbowl’s favor, they would start construction immediately and make snow with the city’s drinking water.
However, on the night of the meeting, the agenda reflected a blank option D) which apparently was a space reserved for the city council to take whatever option they desired. At the conclusion of a formal presentation given to the city by Snowbowl majority owner Eric Borowsky, which focused on the creation of jobs, the Flagstaff economy, and the benefits of fire suppression, he said he would support “any other alternative that allows [Snowbowl] to start construction immediately.”
Earlier in the evening, Mayor Sara Pressler stated “all of us would really have liked USDA to be here tonight. I would just like to offer my dislike of their failure to attend, let you know that the council and I through a letter, I did invite Deputy Secretary Merrigan,” Mayor Sara Presler, talking to empty podium.
Many of the people who spoke during public comments in opposition to Snowbowl had a different idea for the option D. Many spoke of completely canceling the contract with Snowbowl and wouldn’t support snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks no matter what water was used.
In fact many organizations and Tribal governments submitted both independent and joint resolutions that reflected these sentiments. Organizations such as the Sierra Club, Black Mesa Water Coalition, and Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, among 12 other organizations resolutely agreed, “The Department of Agriculture stated that the reason for this new potable water or Recovered-Reclaimed water delivery contract is to appease Native American tribes who object to the use of reclaimed water. However, the Native American tribes, who comprise a large part of our community and economy, have consistently objected to snowmaking in general.”
According to the Hopi Tribal Council Resolution, for example, “The Hopi Tribal Council, representing it’s constituency, has since 1972 opposed any development on the Peaks and reiterates its unwavering opposition against the use of any water for making artificial snow.”
Likewise, The Inter Tribal Council, which includes 20 tribes that reside in Arizona, resolutely “supports the decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling to protect the sacred San Francisco Peaks from any proposed ski area expansion and snowmaking.” This ruling was eventually reversed in 2008, and last summer, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Dr. Joe Shirley Jr., President of the Navajo Nation said in his statement titled, “The Sanctity of the San Francisco Peaks,” “Navajos are united in their opposition to the use of any water source to make artificial snow for the purpose of skiing. You may count me first among them.”
Carletta Tilousi of the Havasupai Tribal Council reminded those in attendance, specifically directing her comments toward Snowbowl, “you knew there wouldn’t be sufficient snow every year when you bought the resort,” referring to an Environmental Impact Statement from 1977 which explained that owners should take appropriate management steps that account for inconsistent snow seasons.
Kelvin Long, executive director of ECHOES (Educating Communities while Healing and Offering Environmental Support) asked the city to look at this as an opportunity to heal relationships between the city and regional native tribes and nations. He also mentioned how the issue appears from a human rights perspective, following a statement he made at a previous meeting relating this issue to the fact that the UN had pronounced access to clean water a human right. “Children die every day because they don’t have access to clean water, and here we are discussing water used for recreation.”
Klee Benally, a volunteer at the Taala Hooghan Infoshop and member of the Save the Peaks Coalition also looked at the issue from a human rights perspective. Benally brought up the fact that the city unanimously voted to challenge Arizona’s hotly contested immigration bill, SB-1070. He said canceling the contract with Snowbowl would be another way for the city to align themselves with human rights.
The City Council, after hearing from everybody who wanted to speak, decided to reconvene the following Thursday for a vote. In a move that caught everybody still in attendance by surprise, Mayor Sara Pressler made a motion to ad to the agenda for Thursday, the option of canceling the contract completely. While Art Babbot accused her of playing politics, she said that she thought it would be worth talking about since it came up so much through the public comments, citing the blank option D on the agenda. The council immediately voted down the motion.
On Thursday, the City Council voted to maintain he current contract and not sell drinking water to Snowbowl. Those that voted in the minority were Karla Brewster and Sara Pressler. During this meeting, the public as well as council members were visibly stunned when Alan Stephans, a representative from the Department of Agriculture said that the proposal to use drinking water did not originate from his department as Snowbowl and others have said, but from Flagstaff city staff. There are only speculations as to whom among city staff initially went to the USDA with this proposal.
Attorney Howard Shanker, who is litigating on behalf of individuals opposed to snowmaking with reclaimed water, told the Daily Sun, “’I think the City Council decision today was a step in the right direction,’” he said, “’I think it showed that they’re not just going to roll over for Snowbowl. At least for now, it showed that they’re not only paying more attention to the tribes, but to all people concerned with the allocation of scare resources.’”
“If you attended that hearing,” said Borowsky, referring to the initial meeting at Sinagua High School, “you had the privilege of listening to a bunch of uninformed, and mostly illiterate people…It was the worst display of civic procedure that I have ever witnessed. And I’ve been in AZ since 1963, and have appeared before numerous city councils across the state. It was over 7 hours long – the subject matter was supposed to be about the use of either reclaimed or recovered reclaimed water.”
Other folks disagreed and appreciated the process. Jim McCarthy said, “Public hearings are a messy process, and I’ve been to much worse ones. I think the city and the water commission should get credit for allowing everyone to talk, down to the very last person. So I think the City should get very high marks for listening to everyone on this issue – regardless of which side you’re on. The city listened to the people, and maybe some of the people got a little off the subject, but they were pretty close to the subject and they were talking from their heart. I think the City should get credit for that.”
Concerned citizen Moran Rosenthal-Henn said, “hearing people is not a waste of time. Obviously people are very upset about this, and it is good public policy to listen to the citizens. Just because it wasn’t in Borowsky’s favor doesn’t mean it wasn’t the right action to take from the city standpoint.
The Arizona Daily Sun agreed more with Borowsky, however, in their editorial “Snowbowl Hearing’s a Mockery of Due Consideration,” stating, “Few who witnessed all or part of the proceedings have much good to say about them—and that includes those on both sides of the issue.”
“The thing that I found particularly offensive,” continued Borowsky, “is that the mayor allowed 5 tribal officials to talk about no snowmaking for 10 to 15 minutes each. Now that’s an issue that the US Supreme court and the 9th circuit have already decided over 4 years of judicial proceedings. And yet the mayor wasted every body’s time allowing these people to talk about something the federal courts already decided. To make matters worse, when the chairmen of the city’s Water Commission, Patrick Hurley, tried to speak about the water commission’s recommendations and proceedings, he was cut off. He may have got three minutes, but I doubt it.”
Rosenthal-Henn disagreed. What many people, including the USDA don’t understand is that tribal leaders are equal to a government. They are not the same constituents.” McCarthy added that it’s city policy to give members more allotted public speaking time if they represent 10 or more people. But for me, some of these folks came from hundreds of miles away. The Havasupai, for example, don’t have a road out of their canyon; they have to go by horseback or helicopter. I don’t mind giving them a few extra minutes.”
Then a week later, councilman Scott Overton proposed that the City re-draft the contract with Snowbowl to start the clock over, giving them 20 years worth of water starting now to make up for the lost years between today and when the contract was first signed in 2002. His proposal, he reiterated, had nothing to do with what sort of water they were going to use. After all, he voted against drinking water. He wanted to put some provisions in the contract that he claimed would protect the city among some other details.
None other than Ralph Nader, who happened to be in Flagstaff to speak at
Northern Arizona Univeristy, came to this City Council meeting to show his
support for the tribes and environmental groups. He was also appalled at
the notion of using reclaimed water to make snow. When asked if he had
ever worked on an issue like this before, he told The Noise, “No, skiing
on sewer water is a new phenomenon to me.”
After meeting all the council members prior to the meeting, Nader ducked out early to get ready for his talk at NAU. There he brought the issue up to college students as an example of one local issue that deserves their attention.
“They want to expand this ski resort and they need water. The question is, can they use, what the delicate phrase? Reclaimed water? Purified sewage water? Whatever. The history of this water, by the way is not good, they put it all over the land in Eastern Washington to grow crops…cadmium, lead, huge amounts of heavy metals, and with this they grew crops. I’m not saying it’s analogous, but citizens, environmental groups, and many tribes are against this for plenty of good reasons outlined in your magazine here
(referring to The Noise). This is something you can get involved in right
now. This reclaimed water, where does it go? Even if you’re interested in
tourism, can you imagine advertising for a ski resort that uses sewage
The city voted it down, again deciding to stick with the original 2002 contract, and allowing the current lawsuit against the Forest Service to move forward. Borowsky, on the other hand feels optimistic and is planning to start construction in March. If the Forest Service is found guilty of not following the NEPA Process, Shanker claims that the city would no longer be under contractual obligation to the Snowbowl.