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Wastewater Worries

Wastewater Worries

By Megan Emmett
posted: 05/16/2006

WHAT DO YOU GET when you combine a desert-dwelling ski resort, a sacred mountain range, and proposals to use reclaimed wastewater for snowmaking? If you're thinking a huge community controversy spanning four years (and counting), over 20 environmentalist and tribal groups, and endless days spent in courtrooms, then you're right on target.

In 2002, Arizona Snowbowl, located about seven miles northwest of Flagstaff, announced plans for resort improvements—including snowmaking—in response to short seasons with little snowfall. Case in point, during the 2001-02 season the resort was open for only four days due to a combined 87 inches of precious white stuff. And although the skies graciously dumped on the resort during the next few seasons, the 2005-06 winter again only allowed a measly 15 days of operation.

So what do you do if nature won't willingly give you snow? You make it.

However, Snowbowl's idea for snowmaking is spraying effluent from a local wastewater treatment plant across 205 of its 777 skiable acres—land that is considered sacred by Native Americans, thus beginning the long journey through the wonderfully complex (not to mention lengthy) world of environmental impact assessments, public comment, and legal battles.

Two years later, in the spring of 2005, the US Forest Service gave Snowbowl the okay to go forward with the proposed resort improvements, sending the Sierra Club, the Center for Biological Diversity, the Flagstaff Activist Network, and six Native American tribes into a flurry of opposition tactics—like filing a preliminary injunction to stop construction at Snowbowl until a court date could be set.

After a U.S. District Court ruled in favor of Snowbowl in January 2006, the Navajo Nation is again appealing the decision in a fierce battle to save their land. While construction may start this summer on the snow-deprived slopes, the result of this controversy is anyone's guess. To those skiers rooting for Snowbowl: look at it this way, if Snowbowl loses, you can still go hiking on the other 99 percent of the mountain range not occupied by the resort, and you won't risk eating brown snow.

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