Arizona Snowbowl proposes to begin making snow by mid-December and to open before Christmas, operating if necessary on a base of 2 or 3 feet of snow made entirely from reclaimed wastewater.
This would actually be the second time Snowbowl made snow, after a few days of covering bare patches at the base of chairlifts in spring 2012.
It also marks the true beginning of a project that has been appealed and litigated since 2005.
There remains one lawsuit, from the Hopi Tribe, asking a federal judge to halt snowmaking once more so that opponents can argue its impact on a rare plant.
That judge had yet to rule as of late November.
Snowbowl proposes to line up moveable snowmaking machines in mid-December, laying down piles of snow on one run, then another, and using grooming machinery to spread it around and pack it down.
It would open the lower lifts first -- Hart Prairie and Sunset -- before making snow on just one trail on the uppermost part of the mountain, a trail called Volcano.
The snowmaking machines resemble large barrels, raised up on three-wheeled stands, making them portable.
Around the outermost ring of the barrels are a series of tiny ports where pressurized water sprays out.
The pressurized water turns to snow and is propelled farther with a big fan at the base of each barrel.
The snowmaking machines hook up to power supplies and to a series of reclaimed wastewater water spigots that Snowbowl has installed along its ski trails -- all completed infrastructure as of late November.
Each snowmaking unit has a computer and a small weather station aboard, allowing the units to be programmed to make snow based on the current humidity, wind speed and temperature.
Snowmaking is the biggest part of Snowbowl's proposed upgrade, and it is the mechanism that will ensure steady ski seasons and generate funding for other projects, like new chairlifts.
"That's the biggest single element of the upgrade plan," said General Manager J.R. Murray. "... You make snow first and get to a base to 2-foot minimum."
There's about a 50-50 chance Snowbowl will open by Thanksgiving in future years, depending on whether there is cold enough weather at night to make snow. But Murray says there is no question the ski area will be open by late December.
"It's important to be open by Christmas," Murray said.
Also open will be two conveyor belts, 150 and 450 feet in length, to carry beginning skiers and snowboarders uphill for lessons.
"Those revolutionize learning to ski because it takes the fear of the chairlift out of the equation," Murray said.
This December also marks a major milestone for opponents, in what has become a lasting conflict about development at the ski area that stretches back to the 1970s.
That's when Dick and Jean Wilson and the Hopi and Navajo tribes unsuccessfully opposed paving Snowbowl Road and adding three chairlifts.
Coconino National Forest Supervisor Nora Rasure signed off on Snowbowl's more recent proposal to make snow in 2005, and her decision has been challenged ever since. Snowbowl leases more than 700 acres from the Forest Service.
At least 10 individuals and eight tribes and conservation groups have sued the Forest Service, raising assertions about impact to religious freedom, the environment and human health.
The courts have sided with the U.S. Forest Service and approved development at Snowbowl in each of these cases, save one opinion by a three-judge panel at the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals that was later overturned.
Further, the Hopi Tribe has sued the city of Flagstaff and lost, after asserting that it was not in the city's best interest to sell its reclaimed wastewater to Snowbowl.
The Hopis' newest lawsuit, the only one now pending, asserts snowmaking could harm a plant federally listed as threatened.
Snowbowl disagrees with that assessment, saying it won't make snow in high winds and that its nearest snowmaking machine would be some 1,600 feet away.
Federal agencies, including the Coconino National Forest and the Fish and Wildlife Service, have yet to give their views on that matter.
In addition to legal challenges, people opposed to snowmaking at Snowbowl have been arrested for physically blocking the road and construction in 2011 and cited for chaining themselves to construction equipment that was installing water pipeline near Lowell Observatory this past summer.
One couple went on a hunger strike this past summer on the lawn of Flagstaff City Hall, but they did not get the response they sought from Forest Service or city officials or the White House.
A man also tethered a treetop platform to construction equipment this past summer, but descended quickly amid a lightning storm.
Snowbowl has been hesitant to give exact dates for snowmaking or opening this year.
Its security truck sat facing the entry road, and all of the snowmaking machines were fenced off as of late November, as were its remaining construction materials.
One unknown in this case is how much the business stands to gain financially.
That's a figure kept sealed in documents and court briefings to date, and one Snowbowl has not revealed.
The business estimates it has spent about $12 million so far laying pipeline to carry reclaimed wastewater from Flagstaff, buying machinery, upgrading its utilities to carry the water uphill, and intervening in court cases.
The ski area hopes that having steady snow will allow it to open during the key Thanksgiving to Christmas window and expand midweek business by being able to assure skiers of reliable snow all season.
Being open about 116 to 120 days instead of the average 80 days during the past decade will yield an estimated $2 million in higher annual revenues to finance bigger, faster chairlifts and cut waiting lines for skiers.
A sledding area, a pedestrian bridge, parking lot changes and expansion of ski lodges are proposed for later years.
One Forest Service estimate puts Snowbowl's visits by skiers and snowboarders increasing by more than 60 percent in future years.
If that were to happen, gross revenues from lift tickets alone would increase by more than $3 million annually, compared to past years.
About 500 people work at Snowbowl, 40 of them year-round, Murray said.
"This'll be the last year that we won't be able to commit to employees" on an opening date, he said.
Cyndy Cole can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 913-8607.
Snowmaking request gets multiple reviews
Arizona Snowbowl made snow briefly in March 2012 to cover bare areas at the base of some runs near lift lines.
But the request had to go all the way to Washington and back
Snowbowl General Manager J.R. Murray was concerned that Snowbowl would run out of snow in key skier areas before the lucrative spring break.
"We have been hauling snow to these areas, however, we are now out of stockpiles," Murray wrote to Brian Poturalski, who oversees the ski area for the Flagstaff Ranger District of the Coconino National Forest.
Murray proposed hauling potable water and snowmaking guns to the base of the lifts, hooking up a generator, and making snow in a limited area for one night or several (or 10, as it turns out).
Poturalski emailed his boss, Flagstaff District Ranger Mike Elson, to ask for a decision, documents from the agency show.
Elson in turn emailed his boss, Coconino National Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart, to ask for a decision.
A deputy forest supervisor, Kristin Bail, told the email senders that they probably needed to notify the regional Forest Service office in Albuquerque and the Washington office of the U.S. Forest Service in D.C.
Bail ultimately signed off on the idea, which was later seconded by officials in Albuquerque, public records show.