Start of snowmaking not the last word on Flag's reclaimed wastewater

Start of snowmaking not the last word on Flag's reclaimed wastewater

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As Snowbowl prepares to make snow with Flagstaff's reclaimed wastewater, it's important to note that the city's policies on water and wastewater -- reclaimed and otherwise -- are still evolving.

Two decades after upgrading its treatment plants and winning state approval to use the effluent on parks, ballfields and golf courses, the city is considering the next phase: Should the treatment be upgraded even further, and what other uses, including recharging the aquifer thousands of feet below, are acceptable?

Some of those questions have been driven by the Snowbowl controversy and the higher profile, in general, of reclaimed wastewater in the scientific community. As advances in detection technology allow scientists to know more about what compounds remain in the effluent even after treatment to an A+ level, communities that use reclaimed wastewater for irrigation are looking for answers about its long-term effects. Flagstaff, with a track record of 20 years in the field, has become a sort of living laboratory.

The panel the city will convene is likely to evaluate the standards set by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality more than a decade ago and ask how or if they need to be changed for the uses specifically in Flagstaff and the region. As we reported Sunday, studies of the environmental effects of reclaimed wastewater elsewhere are not directly applicable to Flagstaff's unique climate, vegetation and elevation.

After new standards possibly are set, the next step would be to evaluate how to meet them. Everyone agrees that the ideal is to have reclaimed wastewater treated to the highest degree possible. But the ideal is sometimes the enemy of the possible, especially if the possible winds up being good enough. Flagstaff taxpayers and utility customers have invested more than $50 million in the upgrade of the two municipal sewage treatment plants, and it's estimated that a further upgrade to near drinking water status would cost tens of millions of dollars more.

The two local entrepreneurs behind the proposed Sno Park have already proposed such a treatment upgrade on site for the reclaimed wastewater they plan to use for snowmaking on McMillan Mesa. And the city of Cottonwood has approved such an upgrade at a cost to its municipal plant of $40 million.

The future treatment and use of reclaimed wastewater also ties in to a second city initiative -- the creation of a comprehensive municipal water policy.

This would include not only the existing conservation rules during the dry months of late spring and the ban on potable water use at golf courses, but also new conservation standards in the face of climate change and plans for importing water from city wells at Red Gap Ranch 30 miles to the east. At some point, the city might also consider extending treated effluent lines into residential neighborhoods for irrigation.

In other words, the beginning of snowmaking at Snowbowl is hardly the end of water as a contentious issue in Flagstaff. The ski area and every other customer of the city's reclaimed wastewater -- present and future -- have a vested interest in seeing the ongoing questions about it addressed in a deliberative fashion. The convening of an expert panel on standards and uses meets that test even as current uses continue. We look forward to the panel's deliberations, and ultimately its findings and recommendations.

Our view: The city is right to convene a panel of experts to evaluate new standards for treatment and uses even as it develops a comprehensive water policy.

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