I’m still thinking about last February’s “Dew Downtown,” Flagstaff’s third annual ski and snowboard festival, which transformed a steep downtown road into a winter playground of snow-covered runs and what looked like death-defying jumps. In the crowd, scattered among the thousands of families and younger beer drinkers who used words like “shred” and “stoked,” were a group of protesters who were there for a much different message. Their message: Water is scarce in Arizona.
Arizona, like much of the West, was experiencing one of the driest winters on record, and at the time of the event, Flagstaff was in the thick of it. When the local newspaper printed article after article, simultaneously musing over the city’s preparation for the event and the reality of our lack of precipitation, one question became central: Where would the city get enough water to make artificial snow? Its answer: Over 300,000 gallons of Flagstaff’s drinking water would be diverted so the show could go on.
Making snow from any source of water has long been a contentious issue in Flagstaff, Ever since the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort started making snow in order to expand its operations more than a decade ago, there have been protests, including road blockades, tree-sits, lockdowns and other nonviolent demonstrations. More than 50 people have been arrested. Many of those protesting the Dew Downtown event have spent years arguing with the resort, their central point being: As long as water is scarce, water should not be used for recreation.
Just a month after Dew Downtown, neighboring Williams, Arizona, announced that it faced a water crisis and was imposing “level 4” restrictions. A week later, the U.S. Department of Agriculture declared that all of Arizona was officially in a drought. By mid-April, the Flagstaff area had already suffered at least half a dozen wildfires. Recently, the devastating Slide Fire, which threatened homes in Oak Creek Canyon and Flagstaff, was finally contained after it burned at least 33 square miles.
Protesters like to point out the hypocrisy of the city’s sustainability initiatives, which place restrictions on the way citizens can use water, with fines levied against those who don’t comply.
But some snowboarders at the event jeered the protesters. “It’s just water!” they said. “What is the big deal?” “As long as the water is being used for fun, who cares?” Others, though, voiced their support. One woman holding a “Water is life” sign said, “People have thanked us for being here; many are concerned about this.”
Native Americans protesting the event juxtaposed skiing on manmade snow with the reality of their having to haul water on the reservation. One Diné woman from Cameron, Arizona, a small town just north of Flagstaff on the Navajo Nation, said, “If my family misses a weekend to haul water, we have to go that week without.” She added that her drinking water is contaminated by uranium due to mining. As she held a sign containing statistics about water access, I saw her staring at the drainage gutters along the street, where the 60-degree sun was fast melting away Flagstaff’s drinking water. It must have seemed a startling contrast to life on the reservation.
Flagstaff’s utilities director, Brad Hill, who was interviewed on National Public Radio about Dew Downtown, wasn’t upset by the protests, calling the 300,000 gallons used to make snow for the event “a drop in the bucket.” Yet 300,000 gallons of water could meet the needs of a typical family for seven years. Under its own water rates, Flagstaff would bill a private citizen $3,222 for consuming that much water.
Those protesting the use of water for recreation — for either the Dew Downtown festival or the Snowbowl ski resort — think it’s past time for the city to develop an updated water policy standard, one that reflects the reality of this increasingly scarce yet universally necessary resource. Flagstaff citizen and Diné activist Klee Benally said, “What is the outcome of this event? It’s celebrating recreation. So essentially, we’re wasting water for fun, and to me that sends the wrong message.”
Misconceptions about reclaimed wastewater in Arizona abound, and the courts have been dismissive of cultural concerns regarding its use on the San Francisco Peaks. On the day of Flagstaff’s Dew Downtown event, the unseasonably warm wind blew dust, browning the man-made snow even as tourists in T-shirts celebrated. The water might be poisoned to the north, a water crisis could shake up people to the West and statewide standards for drought might be declared, but in Flagstaff, I realized, we still waste our water for fun.
Kyle Boggs is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. He regularly contributes to The Noise, an independently produced northern Arizona newspaper, and is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Arizona’s rhetoric and composition program.