Coverage of Arizona Snowbowl’s Use of Reclaimed Wastewater to Make Snow

Snowbowl August 2010

Snowbowl’s main Agassiz lift in August, 2010

With the (gradual, certainly in Phoenix) advent of Autumn, some people think of snow skiing. I stumbled across a blog post blandly announcing that Snowbowl’s artificial snow-making system, based on treated effluent, was nearing completion. I wanted more information. Mere days later, an article ran in the New York Times, with the word “sewage” in the headline. I thought, really? We’re still referring to reclaimed water as “sewage?” I still wanted more information. The Wikipedia page seems to cover Snowbowl’s basics, by the way.

The Times headline seemed to focus on the gross-out factor rather than the religious significance of the mountain, but the article itself puts the emphasis on the Native American communities (primarily the Hopi and Navajo, apparently) that hold the mountain sacred.

Some background: The ski resort in the past had a Forest Service permit to operate on 727 acres, which was expanded to 777 acres in 1992. In 2005, the Forest Service approved snow-making, based on treated effluent (“poop water”). There were also a number of other upgrades approved, including more lifts, hiking trails, a reservoir, 14 miles of pipe, expanded parking, and more.

This isn’t the first ski resort to propose making snow from treated effluent. Mt. Buller, a few hours from Melbourne in Australia, supplements water it draws from a nearby creek with treated effluent to make snow. Meanwhile, in the US, the EPA and Arizona Department of Environmental Quality certify that wastewater treated to certain standards is safe for making artificial snow. Some environmental groups, including the Sierra Club, dispute this analysis.

As another aside, Flagstaff and many other communities around the US have been using treated municipal wastewater for many uses, including landscape irrigation. These uses have been largely accepted by many communities in recent years. The NOAA does acknowledge that persistent pharmaceuticals in the water and runoff (it calls them “biologically active”) may have an impact on various fauna, and is attempting to monitor it.

In this context, headlines like the Times’, or Mother Jones’ “Sewage Snow: Coming Soon to a Slope Near You?”, or Fast Co Exist’s “Don’t Eat the Yellow Snow” and many more seem like the worst kind of attention-seeking editorial excess. The Times article quotes a scientist, Catherine R. Propper, who says that “a mouthful of snow is not going to make the difference.” Snowbowl’s FAQs state that you don’t usually want to eat any snow at a ski resort, for a number of reasons. The “gross-out” factor is simply unnecessary in coverage of this issue, particularly in such an obvious ploy to grab eyeballs (on the other hand, it worked on me).

The real issue here are the Native American people, who feel that they are being marginalized by the expansion of the resort, with the addition of treated wastewater a symbolic and grave insult added to injury. Snowbowl should switch to potable water for snow-making and other uses on the mountain, and Flagstaff should find other winter customers for its treated effluent.

Meanwhile, I’m curious to learn the effects of persistent pharmaceuticals in otherwise clean treated effluent. I’ll ponder this question during my favorite Snowbowl activity: riding the ski lift during the summer months.

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