Some of us remember scooping up a cold mouthful of new-fallen snow. But at one ski resort in Arizona, eating the snow may not be a good idea. This coming ski season, the Arizona Snowbowl resort will have the dubious honor of becoming the first ski resort in the world to make artificial snow from 100 percent sewage effluent. Despite ongoing protests from Native American tribes and environmental groups, last February a federal appeals court ruled that the as part of an overall expansion, the resort could make snow using wastewater sold to it from nearby Flagstaff’s sewage treatment plant. And that’s just what the resort is gearing up to do in anticipation of ski season.
Arizona Snowbowl, owned by the United States Forest Service, says the reclaimed water meets high standards—just below drinking water—and is already being used to irrigate soccer fields, golf courses, and parks in the area. But in an article in the New York Times, Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, said he was worried about the impact that the artificial snow will have on sensitive alpine tundra and what might happen if skiers fall into the sewer-water snow and accidently ingest some. “It’s a disaster, culturally, and environmentally,” he said. Protestors say that the reclaimed water used for snowmaking may contain antibiotic-resistant genes.
Members of the local Navajo tribe and other activists have fought the resort’s actions with hunger strikes, by chaining themselves to construction equipment, and, in one case, perching in a pine tree. The tree sitter, James Kennedy, only came down from the tree last August because of lightening strikes. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, however, ruled for the second time that the Forest Service had adequately examined potential health risks from used reclaimed water to make snow. The first lawsuit was brought by the Native American tribes that surround the high-desert ski area in 2007. The group said that using reclaimed water violated their religious freedoms, as they consider the mountains not only sacred ground but also part of the ecosystem.
According to the New York Times, at least half of all alpine ski areas in the U.S. including major resorts such as Vail and Aspen are on public land, and many of them either need to expand or risk going out of business. And due to changing weather patterns wrought by climate change, making artificial snow has become a necessity to keep most U.S. ski resorts open from Thanksgiving or Christmas until spring.
According to a study by the National Academies of Sciences, the use of treated wastewater for beneficial purposes such as irrigation and drinking water augmentation could increase the nation’s total available water resources. A new analysis suggests that the risk of exposure to microbial and chemical contaminants from drinking reclaimed water doesn’t appear to be any higher than the risk associated with some current water treatment systems.
The Arizona Snowbowl resort website states that the town of Flagstaff’s reclaimed water meets all federal and state surface and ground water quality standards and that the Forest Service carefully considered the potential health concerns regarding using reclaimed water for snowmaking. The site also states both the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have certified and approved snow made from treated wastewater for use in making artificial snow. However, there are no federal guidelines or treatment standards for reclaimed sewer water. According to the New York Times, Flagstaff’s water does contain endocrine-disrupting chemicals including hormones, antibiotics, and pharmaceuticals.