Protests still prevalent at Snowbowl following court ruling


By Clark Mindock

With winter approaching, the efforts of Native American tribes and others in opposition of the use of reclaimed sewage water on the San Francisco Peaks, specifically on the popular ski resort Arizona Snowbowl, are likely to continue after receiving national attention.

This coming ski season, the resort will become the first ski resort in the world to use 100 percent reclaimed sewage water to make artificial snow.

Two individuals in August were arrested outside of Flagstaff after they had chained themselves to construction equipment, which was intended to be used to build the waste water pipeline leading to Snowbowl.

In September, a group of protesters “quarantined” a Forest Service lobby in Flagstaff. The protesters presented two letters addressed to Obama Administration officials, including advisers for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Forest Service officials.

“After protesters exited the lobby, an unknown individual tipped over a five gallon bucket full of treated sewage effluent, flooding the Forest Service lobby floor,” wrote, an organization against the use of reclaimed water, about the event.

Perspective on the protests differs depending on which side of the issue you consult.

“I think that people should have a right to, within the law, engage in civil disobedience,” said Howard Shanker, the attorney who represented the plaintiffs in cases against the Forest Service and intervener, Snowbowl, in past lawsuits, “Or express their political, or moral or religious views without fear of retribution.”

J.R. Murray, the general manager at Snowbowl, said he agreed with rights stemming from the First Amendment, but that protest methods can cross the line.

“When [people] infringe upon other people’s personal right, that is where the issues arise,” Murray said. “[This hasn't been a problem] lately, but certainly when, and if, one were to delay us or cause harm financially or personally, I think that would be crossing the line.”

Many ski resorts and cities currently use reclaimed water sources regularly, including Flagstaff, who uses it to water parks and other green places including the lawns found on campus.

A recent study conducted by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, as well as other locally conducted studies, have indicated the “purple pipes,” which carry the waste water effluent to their destinations, contain antibacterial resistant genes at a higher level than what is found in fresh waters unaffected by humans. Flagstaff was the first city to be tested for these sorts of contaminants since the development of technology capable of detecting them.

While researchers have emphasized the findings are nothing to be immediately concerned about, because the bacteria and genes found could be harmless, they do encourage further research.

“With all the things we know and all the things we know we don’t know, “Shanker said,” It may not even be safe.”

In an interview with The New York Times for an article concerning reclaimed water at Snowbowl, Catherine Propper, a professor of endocrinology at NAU, expressed concern with the uncertainty that proceeding without further studies presents.

“We don’t know what effect freezing and thawing is going to have on the chemical compounds,”Propper said. ”We don’t know what UV is going to do to them. It’s a very complicated system that we know very little about,”

The City of Flagstaff, who has agreed to supply Snowbowl with water for snow making over the next 20 years, has taken these recommendations and concerns seriously and is currently assembling an advisory panel to determine what the city should examine. The city would consider further possible standards to do more to treat the water than what current state and national laws require.

Snowbowl says using reclaimed water is the best source given the options.

“Which water do you want to use, potable or reclaimed? The answer is reclaimed because [you should] leave potable for drinking and cooking and bathing.” Murray said. “We would be winning environmental awards for this if there wasn’t the opposition.”

In February, a Ninth Circuit U.S. court ruled in favor of Snowbowl, who leases the land from the Forest Service. The ruling seemingly put an end to the legal future of the opposition.  However, if protests are effective and the Obama administration becomes involved or an appeal is made, the ruling could possibly be reversed. The February decision regarded a second legal claim against Snowbowl.

The opinion of the court stated the case was a “gross abuse of the judicial process . . . [Snowbowl] successfully defended an agency decision to allow snow making . . . ‘New’ plaintiffs appeared represented by the same attorney as the losing party in the first lawsuit.” The opinion went on to state the claims in the new case were virtually the same arguments as were used in the previous lawsuit.

Planned construction will cost Snowbowl $18.5 million and will allow 255 of the 777 acres on the resort to be covered in man-made snow. Snowbowl has been approved to use up to 1.5 million gallons a day for their snow making.

“It’s federal land; we lease it from the Forest Service. It’s dedicated to be a ski area. So, if a ski area is going to be here, it needs to be able to sustain itself economically.” Murray said. “And how do you do that? You make snow like all the other ski area so that you know that you’re going to be open”

Snowbowl, a vital player in Flagstaff tourism that brings in nearly $24 million into the Flagstaff economy from visitors, and an employer to 500 employees each winter, will potentially be able to stay open further into spring and potentially open earlier in the fall because of the snowmaking.


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