Because there isn’t enough snow in Arizona to support a ski range, the Snowbowl (Toilet Bowl?) Resort is making its own snow. But the only water available is wastewater. Some people are not pleased.
It’s not uncommon for ski resorts to make artificial snow when the real thing can’t be found, but the Snowbowl Ski Resort in Flagstaff, Arizona, wants to take the practice to another level by covering its slopes with snow made out of 180 million gallons of recycled wastewater. It’s a plan that is drawing ire from local Native American tribes and environmental activists alike.
Snowbowl first received the go-ahead to make artificial snow in 2005 to compensate for unpredictable weather (that’s what happens when you build a ski resort in the desert). More recently, the city of Flagstaff agreed to sell 1.5 million gallons of wastewater daily from a local treatment plant to the resort.
The ski resort plans to construct a 15-mile pipeline from the city that goes to a reservoir. When Snowbowl is low on real powder, it will be able to pump the wastewater into large fans that churn out a fine mist of water droplets, which can quickly freeze into snow.
Perhaps the largest impediment to Snowbowl’s plan is the Hopi Tribe, which sued Flagstaff for its decision to go ahead with the wastewater plan. The problem: Snowbowl’s wastewater runoff will likely end up on land that the tribe considers to be sacred. In fact, 13 Native American tribes worship at the San Francisco Peaks—the inactive volcano range that is home to Snowbowl. And having soiled water on sacred land so that people can go skiing doesn’t sit well with the tribes.
The Hopi Tribe explains:
The contract provides for the use of reclaimed wastewater in a mountain setting where runoff and overspray cannot be prevented, as Arizona law requires. Additionally, restrictions on limiting human contact with wastewater cannot be met, and harm to the unique alpine environment in the area, including rare animals and plants, cannot be prevented. The contract is also illegal under Arizona law because it will result in unreasonable environmental degradation and will further deplete limited drinking water resources.
The Hopi tribe also contends that the project violates its water rights, which guarantee that the tribe has enough water to meet the needs of its reservation.
The Coconino National Forest’s environmental impact statement for the project contains a laundry list of other potential problems: visible “scarring” of the local landscape, increased local noise levels from the snowmaking machines, the potential to change soil chemistry and moisture, and destruction of wildlife habitats.
And then there are the health implications of skiing on treated poop water. Mother Jones points us to a study claiming that Flagstaff’s treated wastewater may contain hormones, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceuticals, carcinogens, and more. This could cause toxicity and reproductive issues for wildlife surrounding the ski slopes. And as for the humans at Snowbowl? It’s hard to say what the health impact may be—this is the first time a ski resort has attempted to use 100% treated wastewater to churn out snow. Skiers should just hope that they don’t fall and get a mouthful of the stuff.
Despite the Hopi lawsuit, Snowbowl began construction on its wastewater system this past spring. But if the project fails, we have another suggestion: When real snow arrives, cover the ski slopes in bubble wrap. Patrons may be more inclined to ski on plastic than on recycled sewage.
Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more