U.S. Water News Online
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- For residents of sun-drenched Phoenix,
the quickest route to skiing and snowboarding is a two-hour drive to
this northern Arizona community -- if there's snow, anyway.
Arizona Snowbowl, which sits in the Coconino National Forest
outside Flagstaff, has hosted skiers in search of powder since 1938.
But the drought gripping Arizona has meant hardly any skiing in some
Snowbowl's operators hope to change that with the addition of
snowmaking equipment, pitting them against tribes and
environmentalists in a dispute that the U.S. Forest Service must now
decide. A decision from a Forest Service supervisor is expected in
the next month or two.
Snowbowl wants to operate the snowmaking equipment with reclaimed
Flagstaff city wastewater to offset dry years and to lay bases in
good years, like this one. It has also asked the Forest Service to
allow it to upgrade lifts, build new trails and build an area for
Coconino National Forest officials have already identified that
proposal as its preferred choice, compared to allowing no new
development or allowing expansion but not snowmaking equipment. A
final decision, which will be made by Forest Supervisor Nora Rasure,
is being drafted, said spokesman Ken Frederick.
Whatever decision is made, however, it will likely be appealed
administratively and could end up in court, detractors say.
J.R. Murray, Snowbowl's general manager, said Snowbowl needs
snowmaking equipment to be competitive, and the current owners have
indicated they will try to sell the resort if they can't get
permission to make the addition.
"If you're a ski area without snowmaking, you are on financial
thin ice," he said.
Snowbowl is enjoying a good season this winter, as El Nino-driven
storms have brought consistent snow to the San Francisco Peaks. It
opened Thanksgiving weekend.
But during the ongoing western drought, snowfalls have been
inconsistent from year to year, and Snowbowl has been open as few as
four days in an entire season, Murray said.
"To operate a ski area as a successful business, you have to have
some degree of predictability," he said.
Environmentalists and American Indian tribes, however, have
objected to the addition of snowmaking equipment, in part because of
its use of reclaimed wastewater. Reclaimed water is commonly used in
Arizona to water golf courses and parks and to recharge groundwater
Ski areas elsewhere have used reclaimed water blended with other
fresh water, but Snowbowl would be the first to use reclaimed water
alone, Murray said.
The issue is particularly sensitive for Indian tribes that hold
the peaks sacred. Various ceremonial sites dot the peaks area, and
native healers often gather plants here.
The Hopi believe Kachinas live in the San Francisco Peaks.
Kachinas, messengers who take prayers to the Creator, bring rain and
snow, said Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural
"The paradigm is so different. One elder said, 'Are we now playing
God?"' said Kuwanwisiwma. "Will the Kachina spirits feel rejected? If
they feel that rejection, does it mean they will no longer give us
Tribes and environmental groups have opposed Snowbowl for decades,
contending that it desecrates a sacred site and mars a unique
Andy Bessler of the Sierra Club said he's concerned about what the
reclaimed water would do to the soil. The group doesn't oppose the
use of reclaimed water but believes it should be used for groundwater
recharge rather than snowmaking.
He also said that cutting trees to expand trails and other
infrastructure is a concern in a forest that's been hit hard by years
"Any reduction of habitat is a significant environmental impact,"
Murray argues, however, that the ski area affects just 1 percent
of the peaks area and the demand for winter recreation is
demonstrated by the nearly 200,000 people who visit in good ski
"Look at the people out here," he said on a recent weekday when
snow was falling and parking lots were filling. "If the snow is here,
they will come."
Water officials have already certified the type of wastewater
Snowbowl wants to use for snowmaking operations, Murray said.
He acknowledged that tribes consider the mountain sacred, "but
it's public land, not a reservation."
Kuwanwisiwma counters that public lands officials shouldn't have
to save Snowbowl from poor seasons.
"The Forest Service shouldn't be in the business of bailing out
private business," he said.
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