Snowmaking on sacred slopes stirs controversy

  The U.S. Forest Service will soon decide whether to allow the owners of an Arizona ski resort to create artificial snow from the city of Flagstaff’s treated wastewater.

Since 1937, recreational refugees from Phoenix and Flagstaff have enjoyed the 777-acre Arizona Snowbowl ski area in the San Francisco Peaks. On average, the resort gets 260 inches of snow a year, but the amount can vary drastically. During the 2001-2002 season, only 87 inches fell, and the slopes were closed for all but four days.

J.R. Murray, the Snowbowl’s general manager, says that without supplemental snow, the sustainability of the resort comes into serious question.

But 13 American Indian tribes, for whom the mountains are sacred, oppose the plan to use treated wastewater (HCN, 7/7/97: Get Your Ash Off Our Mountain). "In our opinion, it violates the sanctity of the peaks," says Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in Kykotsmovi, Ariz.

The tribes have also asked the Forest Service to better assess the cumulative impacts of the wastewater on the ecosystem. Reclaimed wastewater from Flagstaff already irrigates community golf courses, athletic fields and cemeteries. "The water is almost drinking quality," says Raquel Poturalski, Coconino Forest public affairs officer.

However, some studies show trace amounts of chemicals such as steroids and estrogen, says Bob Hart, programs manager for the Flagstaff U.S. Geological Survey office. "It’s a relatively new area of water quality that requires more study," he says.

Nora Rasure, Coconino National Forest supervisor, could issue the record of decision as soon as the beginning of March.

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