This past winter, Flagstaff Snow Park LLC saw its largest number of visitors to date, according to newly-released data from Coconino County.
This year also marked the first use of artificial snowmaking at the snow park, which allowed the business to operate its sled runs at Fort Tuthill without naturally occurring snowfall despite concerns from environmentalists.
According to county officials, nearly 51,000 people bought tickets to use the snow park for winter recreation, an average of 1,377 people a day for the duration it was open in 2018-19 season -- almost triple the number of people that visited in 2016 when the business first opened.
"We were really pleased," Brian Grube, assistant director for Coconino County Parks and Recreation, told the County Board of Supervisors last Tuesday.
For its winter season, the snow park used 801,000 gallons of water to make snow for its eight sled runs, and according to Josh Crane, co-owner of Flagstaff Snow Park LLC, making snow was necessary to keep the business running.
"Without reliable winters in Flagstaff, there’s no way to judge how many people are going to come up," Crane said. "Before we made snow, it was difficult for employment because we didn’t know when snow was coming."
Additionally, according to Crane, snow storms of two to five inches aren't enough because the snow park needs a base amount of about eight to 10 inches in order to cover the sled runs so no rocks are showing.
"The snowmaking for us was very necessary,” Crane said.
Snow at the park is made using potable water from city of Flagstaff aquifers. Potable water -- which essentially means water that's fit to drink -- comes from a combination of Upper Lake Mary surface water and groundwater from wells, according to Erin Young, water resources manager for the city of Flagstaff.
According to Young, the city must meet water adequacy standards and demonstrate safe-yield from surface and groundwater sources for 100 years. This complies with the Flagstaff Regional Plan 2030.
“Snowpack is important to enabling recharge of the aquifer supply,” Young said.
A combination of smaller storms followed by a record-breaking 40.8 inches in three days helped the water supply this winter. Increased precipitation bolstered Flagstaff water sources this year, with snowmelt helping to fill Upper Lake Mary; its water spilled into Lower Lake Mary for several weeks.
Joe Shannon, a retired Northern Arizona University ecology professor and Sierra Club member, voiced concerns about using potable water at the snow park -- something the environmental organization has brought up in the past. Shannon said the fact that the snow park used the amount they did despite a wetter winter was worrisome.
"If they use that much in a relatively wet winter, how much will they use in a really dry winter?" Shannon said. "That's our concern, that they'll go over that mark and as climate change increases our water is going to become increasingly scarce."
Much of the northern Arizona region's precipitation comes from winter mountain snow, and several surrounding areas are projected to see a drop in snow water equivalent, or the amount of water held in snow, in coming years, according to data published by the Arboretum at Flagstaff. And, according to a 2008 study, severe droughts will occur more often in the Southwest in the future, likely affecting surface water supply.
"Surface water is more sensitive to drought," Young wrote in an email, "whereas ground water is affected on a longer time scale due to large volume and storage over a large area."
The 801,000 gallons used at the snow park this year fell short of the 1 million gallons the business is allotted.
Jay Lively ice rink, which also uses City potable water for its operations used 890,000 gallons in 2018, according to Young. The rink is also permitted to use up to 1 million gallons.
Coconino County also has water conservation initiatives in place, including a 30,000-gallon water tank donated by Lowell to store rainwater. And the Fort Tuthill County Park Water Conservation Initiative works to identify strategies and costs for the reduction of potable water consumption at Fort Tuthill County Park.
Additionally, according to county data, the snow park proved a recreation alternative and helped to mitigate traffic from the Highway 180 corridor, diverting approximately 17,000 vehicles away from the route and about 18,000 sleds from forests and landfills.
Shannon said that the water usage remained a concern, however.
"Trying to alter a traffic problem using a natural water resource is not a viable solution in the long term in light of aridity in terms of climate change," Shannon said. "It's not going to be enough to eliminate traffic problems along 180 and sets a precedent for using drinking water to make snow."
ECONOMIC AND COMMUNITY IMPACTS
All told, Flagstaff Snow Park LLC brought in about $600,000 in gross profit.
As with all county parks, Flagstaff Snow Park’s use permit includes a revenue-sharing component that gives the county an annual base fee of $1,000 plus a cut of the venture’s profits. This winter the county received 6% of the profits, or $40,077 dollars. From that total, $8,000 went to the county's Green Fund, which seeks to implement sustainable measures at the park as a way to offset the use of potable water for snow making.
Of its $600,000, the snow park spent $175,000 in improvements, according to Crane.
The snow park employed 41 part-time seasonal workers and brought in five food trucks.
"That's great that you're providing a business opportunity for these food vendors," said County Supervisor Lena Fowler.
With more usage came additional and unexpected challenges at Fort Tuthill, Grube pointed out.
One of those was the trash left outside of the fee area in Fort Tuthill from people who were using the bike runs instead of the snow park to sled. According to Grube, county staff removed 55 full-size pick up truckloads of sled debris.
"It was quite a bit of trash," he said.
That in turn accounted for 165 staff hours spent removing trash from the park.
Art Babbott, chairman of the Coconino County Board of Supervisors, said he was pleased with the results of the winter season overall, but cited some issues the county will focus on looking forward, one of the those being vehicular emissions. Parking lots were at capacity almost every weekend the snow park was open, with almost 32,000 cars coming in and out of Fort Tuthill from January 1 to March 10.
Babbott also cited water conservation goals.
"As far as ongoing challenges, is making sure we continue to balance use of potable water with the water conservation initiative and rain water harvesting, leading the way from the county to be thoughtful committees and stewards of our groundwater resources," Babbott said. "I do think it’s important that we balance the use with avoided impacts, public lands trashing and vehicular use."
The Coconino County Board of Supervisors has a 10-year agreement with Flagstaff Snow Park LLC to operate various types of snowplay activities in the area.