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Snowbowl's Beleaguered Snowmaking Plans Take Another Hit

Snowbowl's Beleaguered Snowmaking Plans Take Another Hit

[ Wed, 2010-09-08 11:56 ]
Arizona Snowbowl
After a vote last week Arizona Snowbowl's nearly eight-year quest to implement snowmaking remains at a standstill. The resort is pushing to gain water rights while local Native American tribes pull out all the stops to make sure it never happens.

Religion is not usually an obstacle to ski area expansion, but at the Arizona Snowbowl, religious considerations have been a huge stumbling block. The resort suffered a hit to its snowmaking plans last Thursday, when its latest water supply proposal failed before a 5-2 vote by Flagstaff City Council.

Perched above Flagstaff, Arizona, in the San Fransciso Peaks, Snowbowl happens to be located in mountains that are very special to Native Americans. The Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai, and other tribes consider the range the sacred home of the Kachina spirits and the origin of their peoples. Prolonged court battles have set snowmaking plans back almost eight years, while officials—from the Flagstaff City Council to the Obama administration—have weighed in on the controversy.

Since the ski area’s inception in the 1930s, tensions between the tribes and Snowbowl have been brewing. Grievances have come to a head this September in a fight over snowmaking at the ski resort, which no one seems to be winning.

An outpost of winter in a state normally associated with sweltering, triple-digit temperatures, Snowbowl has been getting by on a capricious natural snowfall. The area received 321” in the 2009-10 season, but they’re not always so lucky. During the particularly dismal 2001-2 season the resort only opened for four days. After that experience, Snowbowl owner Eric Borowsky applied for snowmaking permits.

The U.S. Forest Service reviewed and approved the resort’s plans to obtain reclaimed water (treated, recycled sewer water) from the city of Flagstaff and implement snowmaking. While the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality determined reclaimed water acceptable from a health standpoint, the decision infuriated the Hopi and Navajo tribes. Leaders felt that, in addition to the unwelcome concept of people skiing on their sacred slopes, treated wastewater being sprayed as fake precipitation was intolerable.

In 2006, tribal leaders, backed by environmental groups, took Snowbowl and the U.S. Forest Service to court over the snowmaking plans and infringement of religious beliefs. The tribes lost, appealed, and in 2009 the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, which cleared the way for Snowbowl to proceed with snowmaking.

In an effort to alleviate hard feelings and move forward with snowmaking, the city of Flagstaff and Snowbowl came up with what they thought might be a compromise with the tribes: the use of purified drinking water in the snowmaking system.

That approval of the sale of purer drinking water was what failed before the city council yesterday, leaving reclaimed water as the only option, but construction is now held up now by a civil suit filed by the tribes on reclaimed water as a health hazard.

Estimated costs for snowmaking with drinking water was $11 million higher than the reclaimed water (which in the summer is used on golf courses, fields and parks) over 20 years. Proposals for federal money to offset the cost brought fire from Arizona Senators McCain and Kyl, who feel snowmaking should proceed with reclaimed water.

If the potable water plan had passed, some Hopi had intimated that drinking quality water would be an acceptable compromise, but others, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley indicated in a public meeting last May, would like to see the end of skiing in the sacred peaks altogether.

“We only occupy one percent of the peaks,” Borowsky lamented to the Wall Street Journal recently. “Can’t we share this?”