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Flagstaff delays snowmaking decision

Daniel Kraker
The San Francisco Peaks after a recent snowfall. The Flagstaff City Council is debating whether to allow the Arizona Snowbowl ski area to use drinking-quality water to make artificial snow.

By Daniel Kraker

Flagstaff, AZ – More than eight years ago the Flagstaff City Council voted to sell reclaimed wastewater to Snowbowl, the ski area high on the San Francisco Peaks. That plan was eventually approved by the US Forest Service and upheld by the federal courts.

But earlier this year the federal government tried to broker a compromise. The USDA suggested using what's known as "recovered reclaimed" water basically potable water to try to appease the concerns of Native Americans who hold the Peaks sacred.

But last night, tribal leaders made clear they don't support either source of water. Here's Hopi Tribal chairman Leroy Shingoitewa.

"Making artificial snow will desecrate the peaks and devalue religious ceremonies, central to our cultural and spiritual lives."

Nevertheless the city of Flagstaff's water commission and utilities staff have recommended that the city council allow Snowbowl to use either reclaimed or potable water.

They say from the city's point of view, it doesn't make much difference. The potable water in this case is simply treated wastewater that's allowed to percolate deep underground before it's pumped out again after having been naturally filtered.

And the USDA has pledged to foot the 11 million dollar bill for operating those deep wells.

Snowbowl's principal owner Eric Borowksy is pushing for the new water source to prevent another long legal battle. A new lawsuit has been filed arguing that the Forest Service didn't adequately study the health risks of using reclaimed water to make snow.

"After doing 10 years of doing the very best we could and following all the rules, we don't want to go through another 4 to 6 years our plea is we need to start construction now, to create jobs, economic impact, most importantly to try to stay in business."

The Flagstaff City Council heard five hours of public comment late into the night. And the public is still bitterly divided over snowmaking, nearly a decade after the initial plan was first proposed.

Many supporters wore stickers reading "Vote Snow," and echoed the sentiments of Linda Fleischer, a Flagstaff small business owner.

"The AZ Snowbowl is guaranteeing it's imperative to our econ stability, for future of families, lifestyle that we love, I urge you to vote yes on option A."

People opposed to the plan, like NAU student Kevin Ordeen, struggled with the idea of using drinking quality water to make artificial snow.

"We live in a desert. We had a good snow year. We live in a desert. What happens when the drought comes, it will."

Last night's discussion was heated at times. Several questioned whether people from outside the city of Flagstaff should be allowed to make public comments. Some Native Americans wondered whether their points of view were being respected. One thing is clear. When a final decision on snowmaking is finally reached, there will likely be fences between northern Arizona neighbors that need mending.