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Tribes: New snowmaking plan no better

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Liftoff to the ski season
Skiers and snowboarders ride the Sunset Chairlift on Friday morning at Arizona Snowbowl. Snowbowl opened Dec. 17 with most of the ski area's runs being open on the mountain. (Josh Biggs/Arizona Daily Sun)

Some of the tribes that oppose Arizona Snowbowl's plans to make snow with reclaimed wastewater say the new proposal to use a slightly different Flagstaff water source is no better.

Members speaking on behalf of the Hopi, Havasupai and Navajo tribes say U.S. Department of Agriculture efforts to pump groundwater downstream of the Rio de Flag wastewater treatment plant doesn't negate their concerns about making snow.

How much that is the case varies by tribe.

The city of Flagstaff considers the well water, pumped from a depth of 1,500 feet, to be drinkable with only minimal treatment. The water in that part of the aquifer is a combination of discharged treated wastewater, rainfall and snowmelt.

The Hopi Tribe has not been formally consulted on the plans, said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director for the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, and a witness for the Hopi Tribe in the lawsuit over snowmaking.

But its opposition to snowmaking of any kind isn't likely to change.

"The Hopi tribe's position at this point has not changed," Kuwanwisiwma said. "As the lawsuit clearly articulates, we are clearly opposed to snowmaking entirely, from any source of water."

Kuwanwisiwma said the tribe had told the Agriculture Department as much last fall.

Plaintiff Bucky Preston, a Hopi farmer, agreed. He said snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks would interfere with sacred instructions passed down through Hopi generations about the proper roles of humans and natural forces on the Peaks.

"It's against the creator to make snow. That's not humans' job," Preston said.

HAVASUPAI ALSO OPPOSED

A councilwoman for the Havasupai Tribe, based in a canyon branching from the Grand Canyon, had a similar view.

"Making artificial snow for economic purposes is still steps toward abusing sacred mountains. Whatever process they use to make artificial snow is still unacceptable to us Havasupai people," Carletta Tilousi said.

Springs that are the main water source for the village of Supai lie in the same watershed as a portion of Arizona Snowbowl, according to earlier environmental analysis done for the Coconino National Forest.

This raises concerns that snowmaking could eventually affect water quality at Supai, Tilousi said.

The Navajo Nation Council has been in talks with Flagstaff city officials, but Navajo concerns there are different than at Supai or on Hopi.

The council's main objection is the use of reclaimed water on the Peaks, said Joshua Lavar Butler, spokesman for Speaker Lawrence Morgan.

That might include groundwater downstream from a wastewater treatment plant's discharge.

"The council is opposed to any kind of usage of the reclaimed water," Butler said.

CONSTRUCTION PERMIT HELD UP

Arizona Snowbowl has a contract for up to 1.5 million gallons per day of treated wastewater from Flagstaff for snowmaking during four winter months, as proposed in plans that have been cleared by the courts.

Although Snowbowl was legally cleared to use treated effluent for snowmaking in that previous case (which hinged on whether the plans violated religious freedoms of the tribes), there is another lawsuit pending opposing the health and environmental risks of using reclaimed wastewater to make snow.

More recently, permission for Snowbowl to begin construction was withheld by the incoming presidential administration at the White House cabinet level.

The Agriculture Department has not granted the ski area the final permission it would need to begin construction on snowmaking pipelines and other infrastructure, which had been proposed for this spring, and to be operational for the coming winter.

Instead, Secretary Tom Vilsack has proposed the city of Flagstaff offer a new water source in return for Agriculture's help in funding future city water infrastructure projects.

SEVEN YEARS AND $4 MILLION

Snowbowl has pressed for permission to build through letters to Agriculture, saying the business has spent more than seven years and $4 million on the case so far.

Letters in that regard were obtained by the Daily Sun under the Freedom of Information Act.

"As we sit in Flagstaff, we observe the Hualapai tribe construct a tourist 'Skybridge' over the Grand Canyon with no public input, the Navajo tribe building a casino 30 miles east of Flagstaff for tribal 'economic development,' the Hopi tribe win an award for a new water treatment facility that produces A+ reclaimed water, and the Apache Sunrise Ski Area make snow to ensure their business," Snowbowl Owner Eric Borowsky and General Manager J.R. Murray wrote to Deputy Agriculture Secretary Kathleen Merrigan last summer. "It appears that tribes are able to do what is necessary for their prosperity, yet these same tribes are attempting to force us out of business."

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at ccole@azdailysun.com.

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