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Perspectives On Water Use Choices

Controversy has arisen again over water use choices, this time over the use of potable water for snowmaking at Fort Tuthill. It’s worthwhile stepping back for perspective.

Water is both a necessity and amenity in our lives. Whether you grow water-thirsty tomatoes, wash a car, take a shower longer than necessary, maintain a hot tub, swim in a pool or play a round of golf on irrigated links, you likely think your life is better for it. In a perfect world, we might have a societal “happiness per gallon” meter to help make smart choices among competing water uses. At present, the only constraint on water use is price; if you can pay for it, you can do with it as you wish. Conservationists likely think that price alone isn’t an adequate filter and may be resentful of those who use water without a thought.

Figures published by the Daily Sun triggered the latest controversy and indicate that Snow Park LLC used 810,000 gallons of potable water while serving 51,000 paying customers. That’s roughly 16 gallons per customer visit. Contrast that with over 6,000 gallons of reclaimed water used per round of golf played at a local golf club in 2014 (you read that right!) based on figures provided by the club in statements to City Council (more recent figures are not available to the writers). That begs the question, are snow and golf good choices? Is one better than the other?

Answering that and similar questions requires a deeper look. You might say that using reclaimed water is always good as any reclaimed water not used is simply discharged to the Rio de Flag. But it’s more complicated. A substantial fraction of reclaimed water discharged to the Rio de Flag percolates back to the Coconino Aquifer where it can be reused by Flagstaff and others downstream (the Coconino Aquifer generally flows northeast).

In contrast, due to evapotranspiration, water used for golf course and playground irrigation is almost entirely lost to the Flagstaff system (it’s literally gone with the wind) and may next appear as rain in New Jersey. It’s our guess that water for snowmaking is an intermediate case, meaning a reasonable fraction may end up returning to an aquifer, depending on location, weather and local geology.

An additional perspective on reclaimed water is that while presently we discharge it or sell it for a price less than potable water, we’ll almost certainly re-purify it as a source of drinking water in the future. In that world, all water has equal value.

A final complication is the question of water purity and safety. State and federal research and regulations concerning the 80,000+ manmade chemicals introduced since WWII are woefully inadequate. Pharmaceuticals, personal care products, herbicides, and pesticides, some of which are endocrine disruptors and carcinogens, now appear in our reclaimed water. We have no more idea than we did for DDT, Agent Orange, and Roundup concerning which may have long term human and ecosystem health effects, though the EPA has identified 144 chemicals of concern (not yet regulated) and California EPA has identified over 1,000.

The EPA’s “safe until proven dangerous” is a risky policy. For that reason, we’re pleased for the children sledding at Fort Tuthill that Snow Park LLC used potable and not reclaimed water. By the same reasoning, it’s also our view that Flagstaff should make a choice to invest in advanced treatment to further purify our reclaimed water. That will improve safety and flexibility for present and future uses for reclaimed water. If done wisely, such investments will provide a first step toward processing wastewater into potable water. Leadership for such a choice will not come from the state or federal government; it needs to come from the community.

The bottom line is a necessity for all of us to think deeply the next time we consider or challenge community water use. Supply, safety, recovery, conservation, and consistency with future plans are all important.

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Flagstaff Water Group: This column was submitted by Bryan Bates, Ward Davis, George Kladnik, John Nauman and Robert Vane.

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