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Third Annual Dew Downtown Sparks Water-Use Dispute

Photo by Aaron Granillo

This past weekend, downtown Flagstaff transformed into an urban snowboarding course for the third annual Dew Downtown event. And between all of the tricks, jumps, grinds and grabs, there was also controversy. As Arizona Public Radio’s Aaron Granillo reports, some locals were upset that the man-made snow for the course came from Flagstaff’s drinking water supply.

Thousands of spectators filled the streets of downtown Flagstaff to watch skiers and snowboarders speed down a snow-packed obstacle course. But, at the bottom of the hill, beyond the beer garden, a group of demonstrators protested the event.

Klee Benally is a volunteer with Protect the Peaks, an organization that is against using treated wastewater to make snow on the San Francisco Peaks. But over the weekend, it was the snow on San Francisco Street Benally was concerned about because it was made with about 300,000 gallons of Flagstaff’s drinking water.

“The City of Flagstaff proclaims to have sustainability as part of its mission and vision for the quality of life in this community. Should we be, in the face of drought, gambling with our water? Should we be using our water for recreation? I don’t think so,” Benally says.

It’s true that the City of Flagstaff recently tied an all-time record for winter dry spells, but according to the city’s utility director, Brad Hill, Flagstaff is not in jeopardy of running out of drinking water anytime soon. 

“Interestingly enough, when we say it’s a drought year, we actually have more water in Upper Lake Mary today than we did a year ago today, because we had such a wet monsoon season,” Hill says.

And, Lake Mary is where a big chunk of the city’s drinking water comes from. Hill adds that the 300,000 gallons of used for Dew Downtown doesn’t add up to much.

“We deliver 2.8 billion gallons of water to our community a year. So the 300 to 400,000 gallons represents what we deliver to our community in about one hour,” he says.

“That doesn’t seem like that much?”

“In terms of overall, it’s not. What we deliver in one hour as opposed to what we deliver in a year? It’s not that much,” Hill says.

One of the state’s leading experts on drought agrees.

“This is a very small use of water out of our overall annual water budget,” says Abe Springer.

Springer is a hydrologist at Northern Arizona University. He says beyond the issue of what the snow is made of is how much energy it takes to put on the event.

“The biggest impact to the city is actually all the electricity it costs to pump and lift and treat the water and to make snow with it, and move it around. That water energy nexus is a very complex area,” Springer says.

But regardless of how much impact the event has on the city’s drinking water supply or use of energy, protestor Klee Benally says Dew Downtown sends the wrong message to the community.

“It’s completely irresponsible. I mean, on one hand they’re telling us, as citizens of Flagstaff, to do our part to ensure that we’re conserving our water as a precious resource for our future generations. But at the other hand, they’re saying it’s OK. We can just dump over 300,000 gallons of drinking water,” Benally says.

The city has tried another option in the past. Natural snow was used three years ago at the inaugural Dew Downtown. The last two years it's been drinking water. Both have sparked controversy in the community, and it’s uncertain what the city will decide for next year’s event.

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