Sewer Snow on Sacred Mountain May Show Skiing’s Future

After decades of unpredictable ski seasons that lasted as little as four days, the Arizona Snowbowl resort took a bold step last month: It started ensuring a reliable supply of snow by using water recycled from sewage.

The ski area near Flagstaff is the first in the U.S. to make snow entirely from treated effluent -- something that could become more widespread as facilities across the country confront drought, future water restrictions and climate change.

“The utilization of alternatives to pure water is the wave of the future,” said John Rosenberg, fund manager at Stamford, Connecticut-based Loughlin Water Partners LP, which primarily invests in companies that develop products or technologies to mitigate water demand. “It seems almost inevitable, unless we find another means of making snow.”

Snowbowl began using treated wastewater from Flagstaff after prevailing in lawsuits with American Indian tribes who consider the mountain peaks sacred, and environmentalists who contend that bacteria and chemicals in the water may be harmful.

The move comes as the $6 billion U.S. ski industry confronts vulnerability to years of drought. Colorado, where skiing contributes $3 billion to the economy every year, is enduring its second unusually dry year in a row. A third or more of the terrain at some of its most popular resorts is still closed well into the season.

Snow Shortage

Vail Resorts, the Broomfield, Colorado-based company that operates resorts in Colorado and other states, cut its profit forecast for the year on Jan. 15. Chief Executive Officer Rob Katz said Colorado resort conditions were “very poor and highly unusual” through mid-December. U.S. resorts recorded the worst season for visits and the least snowfall in two decades last year, according to the Lakewood, Colorado-based National Ski Areas Association, a trade group that recently went to court to challenge the U.S. Forest Service over rights to water used primarily in snowmaking.

At least a dozen other U.S. ski areas have used reclaimed water, though not exclusively as Snowbowl does, said Troy Hawks, a spokesman for the ski association.

Among them is Seven Springs Mountain Resort in western Pennsylvania, about 60 miles (97 kilometers) southeast of Pittsburgh, which isn’t using effluent in snowmaking now, said Anna Weltz, a spokeswoman. When it is used, the company mixes 1 part wastewater with 200 parts water from other sources, including rain and snowmelt, she said.

‘Environmentally Sound’

Vendors who worked on the Flagstaff project showcased their accomplishments to other ski resort executives at the association’s conference and trade show, Hawks said.

“We see it as an environmentally sound practice,” he said. “Water is certainly a commodity. Its value has grown. It might well be an option on the table” for more ski areas in the future.

Australia’s Mount Buller ski resort, a three-hour drive northeast of Melbourne, was the first in the world to use treated sewer water as part of its snowmaking in 2007, said Gillian Dobson, a spokeswoman. Since then, other resorts in the country have followed, she said. In 2010-2011, about 22 percent of the water used for snowmaking was wastewater, Dobson said.

“To use a scarce resource like water as wisely and responsibly as possible is certainly something that we are proud of being able to do,” Dobson said.

For the Arizona Snowbowl, now in its 75th year, snowmaking is the key to future growth. The closely held resort about 150 miles north of Phoenix has struggled with the unpredictability of snowfall in an arid climate.

Stunted Seasons

Operators could never guarantee the slopes would be open for the lucrative winter holiday season, which can account for about a fourth of annual business, said Dave Smith, a spokesman. In 2006, the resort didn’t open until March 17 and operated just 15 days, he said. At least one season lasted just four days, Smith said.

“We know that we need to make snow to bring consistency to our seasons, year in and year out,” Smith said in his office at the resort’s Hart Prairie Lodge.

Snowmaking at the resort, located in the Coconino National Forest, was first proposed in 1979, Smith said. The current operation won the approval of the Forest Service in 2005.

“Given the long-term water predicament Arizona and other states are facing, using reclaimed water to make snow is an environmentally and economically responsible decision,” the Forest Service said on its website.

Protests, Lawsuits

The decision was met with protests and lawsuits. Demonstrators chained themselves to construction equipment, held hunger strikes and prayer vigils, and descended on Forest Service offices.

“This is a site that is sacred and holy to 13 tribes in the southwestern United States,” said Howard Shanker, a lawyer with offices in Tempe and Flagstaff who represented the Navajo Nation, the Sierra Club and other tribes and environmental groups in challenging the snowmaking plan. “Spraying reclaimed sewer water on it is sacrilege to them. It violates their deeply held beliefs.”

Opponents argued in court that the proposal violated the religious freedom of the tribes and that the federal government failed to consider the potential impacts of ingesting snow made from the treated wastewater.

“We know there are a host of chemicals categorized as pharmaceuticals and personal-care products that don’t get tested for and don’t get treated out of the water,” Shanker said. “They really don’t know what is in this water and what the long-term impacts will be.”

Native Americans

Tribes and environmental groups ultimately lost in two court challenges. A third lawsuit, by the Hopi Tribe arguing that the wastewater could harm an endangered plant, was settled last month.

Flagstaff’s treated effluent, which is also used to water golf courses and public properties, may be cleaner than water from ponds and other sources, Smith said. A yellow tint reported in the man-made snow was caused by rust in the more than 15 miles of pipes carrying the water from the city, which have since been flushed out, he said.

With the ability to make snow promising a full season each year, the resort hopes to use added revenue to build new trails, upgrade its lifts and improve its lodges, he said.

On a recent Saturday at the resort, the mountain was crowded with skiers and snowboarders, some of whom had been following the snowmaking controversy.

Snowboarder Nick Aldini, 23, from Flagstaff, said he’d been at the resort seven times since it opened Dec. 20, though he had some concerns about the wastewater snow.

“You don’t have control if you take a fall and it gets in your mouth,” he said. “And it is against Native American wishes. But I’ll ski on it.”