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Aug 29
Aug 29

The Peaks in Context - Storm Clouds Darken Over the San Francisco Peaks As the City Debates Water

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In 1977, the Forest Service penned an Environmental Impact Statement weighing the pros and cons of Northland Recreation’s initial expansions on the San Francisco Peaks, which were permitted to take place in 1982. That EIS outlined the risks of operating a ski resort in Arizona, stating the resort could, however, be possible with the understanding of the climate here, that there are going to be periods where there is not sufficient snow. It recommended that good management skills be used to account for the potential for inconsistent seasons.

By the time construction was complete, the ski resort was sold again, and after subsequent expansions, Arizona Snowbowl Limited Partnership bought the ski resort from Fairfield Communities in 1992 and immediately expanded and added a few buildings. In 2001, Snowbowl revealed plans for more development and the use of the city’s reclaimed water to be pumped up the mountain and used to make artificial snow.

On August 30, 5:30 PM at Sinagua High School, Flagstaff City Council will hold a special meeting, open to the public, to discuss whether or not to amend Snowbowl’s existing contract obligating the city of Flagstaff to sell 1.5 million gallons of reclaimed wastewater per day to the ski resort for the purposes of snowmaking or, instead, to sell them “recovered” reclaimed water.

There is no debate about whether “recovered” reclaimed water, also called “stored water” is actually “potable,” or water that meets drinking water quality standards, with minimal treatment. According to the AZ Daily Sun on July 3, “The city of Flagstaff currently deposits unused reclaimed water (what’s left over after watering golf courses, parks) in Picture Canyon and in the Rio de Flag, downstream of two wastewater treatment plants.” The effluent run-off mixes then with the fresh effluent from the treatment plants. As the water moves, some of it evaporates, some of it is absorbed by plant-life, and some of it drops through the natural filtration processes of the rock bed, into the Coconino Aquifer. “The water [taken from the aquifer], after chlorination, is potable and suitable for household use.”

Because “the city gets its water from the Coconino Aquifer, Upper Lake Mary, and a little from the Inner Basin of the peaks,” Snowbowl would be tapping into the city’s drinking water supply. “’I think it’s incredible that we should use our groundwater to support a profit-making corporation,’ said Dick Wilson, a plaintiff in the original 1970’s lawsuit to prevent the ski area from becoming a larger commercial operation,” he told the AZ Daily Sun.

In an early August City Council Meeting, City Councilor Art Babbott, realized there was a high level of confusion among the public regarding the idea that “recovered” reclaimed water is actually of drinkable quality. He proposed to change the language on the amended contract to “Potable Water” instead of Recovered Reclaimed Water and the vote lost 3-4.

The existing contract that the city has had with Snowbowl since 2002 would ensure the sale of reclaimed water–treated sewage effluent—directly from the treatment plant to the ski resort. The amended contract proposes that Snowbowl be permitted to tap the “largest city water line in west Flagstaff” by pumping directly from the Coconino Aquifer.

It is important to realize that 7 months before the idea of selling potable water to Snowbowl was even on the table, a few months after a federal appeals court denied tribe’s religious and cultural arguments against plans approved by the Forest Service to use the city’s reclaimed wastewater to make artificial snow, and right after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the decision, the Forest Service and Snowbowl were in court, knee deep in a lawsuit. The suit, brought on by the Save the Peaks Coalition and nine citizens calling for the Forest Service to take seriously the growing public health concerns regarding the safety of using treated sewage effluent to create fake snow. While other resorts make snow, some even from percentages of reclaimed water, Snowbowl is lined up to be the only resort in the world to use 100% reclaimed wastewater to make snow.

According to the Save the Peaks Coalition, “The use of reclaimed sewer water to make snow, however, was not only repulsive to people who hold the San Francisco Peaks sacred, it raised concerns from skiers and the community over the safety of being immersed in, and even eating, snow made from non-potable treated sewage effluent.”

The lawsuit sites the National Environmental Policy Act, which states that the Forest Service is obligated to consider potential impacts the wastewater will have on the quality of the human environment. The Forest Service completely ignored the possibility of human ingestion of snow made from treated sewage effluent in their Final Environmental Impact Statement.

Reclaimed wastewater is not “potable water;” it is not of drinking quality. Reclaimed wastewater treatment plants “take sewage, some storm drain water, and what goes down the kitchen sink or shower drain.” It is loosely filtered to meet current standards in line with the way it is typically used, to irrigate golf courses, city and university parks, playgrounds, and lawns. Wherever the city uses this water, there are clearly posted signs warning citizens not to ingest the water. There has been increased debate in the scientific community regarding the safety of reclaimed wastewater.

“According to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regulations, treated sewer water can be graded A+ even when it contains fecal matter in three out of every ten samples.” According to Dr. Abraham Springer, Northern Arizona Professor and director of the School of Earth Science and Environmental Sustainability, “The treated wastewater can meet all applicable water quality standards, but still not be as high of quality as precipitation.”

Aside from what wastewater treatment plants do test for, there are substances that are not tested for regularly, or aren’t tested for at all. Studies of wastewater across the country have found compelling evidence of pharmaceuticals, hormones, endocrine disrupters, industrial pollutants, and narcotics.

Dr. Paul Torrence, Emeritus Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Northern Arizona University, published work related to a specific toxin called triclosan, which has received a lot of attention in the media during the last few years. Beyond many common anti-bacterial soaps, it is also found in personal care products like toothpastes, deodorants, and face washes, and incidentally, has been found in increased levels in tests of other cities wastewater facility’s water. When triclosan reacts with chloride, it becomes chloroform, which is a carcinogen. When it reacts with ultra-violet rays, it forms different, mega-carcinogens, in the form of poisonous dioxins. This is why the Canadian Medical Association has called for an outright ban of triclosan.

This level of understanding regarding the nature of triclosan is important when one considers the filtration process sewage water goes through before it meets reclaimed water standards. During the oral arguments at the Arizona District Court hearings in Phoenix on July 20th, Forest Service lawyer John Tustin explained the process. “It’s subject to tertiary filtration and ultraviolet disinfection, and there’s an additional hypochlorite, which is essentially bleach, that’s put in very small amounts to maintain residual disinfection.”

Flagstaff residents will remember in early November 2009, U.S. Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, as well as Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl contacted the Department of Agriculture, which overseas the Forest Service, to inquire about the timeline for construction at Snowbowl.

Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said, according to the AZ Daily Sun, that she had “’come to appreciate the complexity and…have held discussions with representatives from the Arizona Snowbowl and the affected Tribes to explore opportunities to address their interests and resolve this situation in a mutually beneficial manner.’”

By the time spring blew into Flagstaff, the AZ Daily Sun reported, “Secret Snowbowl Talks Break Open.” As it turns out, Flagstaff city officials had been holding secret meetings with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to find a solution less offensive to the tribes. Plus, if a new water deal could be worked out with the city, two things happen.

The current lawsuit against the Forest Service, which would force them to more adequately and meaningfully address growing public health concerns about the use of reclaimed water to make snow, would be thrown out. And, to compensate for the extra cost of using potable water, the Department of Agriculture, offered to subsidize the project with a grant funded by taxpayers worth 11 million dollars, though no exact amount has been officially pledged.

“U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl blasted the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” reported the AZ Daily Sun in March. “’we oppose the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize snowmaking iat Arizona Snowbowl, and we will object to any attempt to secure an earmark or congressional approval of this project.’”

Despite the fact that many tribes, particularly the Hopi, who have consistently opposed snowmaking from any source and developments of any kind on the San Francisco Peaks, the Department of Agriculture said that using potable water to make snow would be, according to majority owner of Snowbowl, Eric Borowsky, “preferential to the tribes.” Given that the Forest Service approved both types of water, when pressed by The Noise as to whether the use of reclaimed or “recovered” reclaimed water mattered personally to Borowsky, he asnswerd, “out of respect for the tribes, I want to use this ‘recovered’ water.”

Borowsky says that a statement by the Hopi Water and Land Commission, signed by the chairperson that the USDA was dealing with said the use of “recovered” reclaimed water was preferential to the Hopi Tribe.

Andy Bessler, Sierra Club’s Southwest Regional Representative for their Tribal Partnerships Program, said, “The Hopi Tribe’s general counsel, Scott Canty who most likely wrote and sent the letter to the City on the Tribe’s behalf was fired in part because of sending that letter. The Obama adminstration did not do their homework and consult with the over 13 tribes who have opposed Snowmaking for years. Also, it is not just the snowmaking that is an issue for the tribes: cutting trees, digging in the dirt and more development is also an issue.”

Besides, the Hopi Water and Land Commission doesn’t make decisions like that, the Tribal Council does. On Thursday, May 20, Flagstaff Water Commission met for the first time to discuss whether or not to amend the contract. Though the decision was tabled to give both the commission and the public more time to consider the options, tribal opposition was clear months earlier. In March, Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director for the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, and a witness for the Hopi Tribe in the lawsuit over snowmaking with reclaimed water told the AZ Daily Sun, “’The Hopi tribe’s position at this point has not changed. As the lawsuit clearly articulates, we are clearly opposed to snowmaking entirely, from any source of water.’” He went on to say that he told the Department of Agriculture all this when they met the preceding fall.

Plaintiff Bucky Preston, a Hopi farmer, agreed, explaining to the Daily Sun that “snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks would interfere with sacred instructions passed down through Hopi generations about the proper roles of humans and natural forces on the Peaks. “’It’s against the creator to make snow. That’s not humans’ job.’”

Also opposed to snowmaking of any kind on the Peaks is the Havasupai Tribe. Carletta Tilousi, councilwoman for the tribe, added, “’Making artificial snow for economic purposes is still steps toward abusing sacred mountains. Whatever process they use to make artificial snow is still unacceptable to us Havasupai people,’” she said.

Months later at the May 20 Flagstaff Water Commission meeting, Snowbowl and the Department of Agriculture, were still trying to maintain that using “recovered” reclaimed water had the support of the tribes, citing proof from a supposed letter from the Hopi Tribal Council. Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa spoke up. “What you are reading is not a letter from the council; we wouldn’t sign it” And Kuwanwisiwma added, “What you have in front of you from the Hopi Tribal Council is not real. Stored water is still offensive to the values that people have about the Peaks.”

Howard Shanker, the attorney for the Save the Peaks Coalition et al., in the case challenging the Forest Services compliance with NEPA in approving wastewater for use on the Peaks said he received permission that morning from Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley to speak for him and the views of the tribe. In his statement, Shanker addressed many ongoing assumptions, and wanted to make clear that the Navajo Nation is opposed to snowmaking, no matter the source of the water.”

Still, in July, the AZ Daily Sun falsely reported that Shirley “told the Agriculture Department in a letter that potable water would be less objectionable to his and other tribes.”

As of today, the Yavapai, Apache, Havasupai, Hopi, and Navajo have passed resolutions denouncing the use of any source of water to make snow artificially. There shouldn’t be any ambiguity regarding how the tribes feel about potable water. “The Navajo Nation recognizes that clean drinking water is sacred and essential for all living beings, especially in the arid Arizona climate, and should not be wasted on non-essential recreational activities such as snowmaking for a limited skiing population.”

Further, a joint resolution, signed by the Sierra Club, Friends of Flagstaff’s Future, Black Mesa Water Coalition, Grand Canyon Trust, and scores of other organizations, makes a similar argument. “We do not believe it is prudent to use potable water to aid a private business outside city limits in their effort to provide limited recreational opportunities to those who can afford them. The City of Flagstaff has a responsibility to its citizenry to provide a long-term, clean, and healthy drinking water source for essential survival.”

Borowsky, on the other hand, maintains that the project is “aquifer neutral.” Most of the water will be returned to flagstaff,” he told The Noise. “From a hydrology point of view it makes no difference.” When asked him to respond to those residents concerned about a private, for-profit corporation, being sold drinkable Flagstaff water resources, Borowsky responded. “Those people making comments just don’t understand hydrology…90% of the water will recharge the aquifer and 10% will be lost to the little Colorado because of the way the mountain slopes on one side.”

On the other side, Northern Arizona University Professor of Geology Abe Springer, claims otherwise. Six years ago he wrote, of using reclaimed water, “The result of using reclaimed water for snow making is that most of it will go directly into the atmosphere as it sublimates…The DEIS indicates that between half and nearly all of the water applied as snow will be sublimated.”

The justification for selling potable water to Snowbowl for the purpose of snowmaking, as both Borowsky and the Department of Agriculture indicated, was to find a less offensive solution to the tribes. It is clear that they have not found that solution.

And, environmentally speaking, it is clear that there is a lack of clear evidence regarding where the water goes. In 2010, as our city moves toward a more sane and sustainable future, the council has important questions to ask. As Mayor Sara Presler stated after the city laughed Nestle out of town for asking if they can have a third of the water that Snowbowl has allotted, water a year, not a day, and provide 50 year round, sustainable jobs, “’This kind of business is dead on arrival,’ Presler said. ‘It doesn’t pass the common sense test.” Does this one?

Written by Kyle Boggs