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Don't Eat The Yellow Snow: Arizona Ski Resort Plans To Make Powder Out Of Sewage

Because there isn't enough snow in Arizona to support a ski range, the Snowbowl Resort is making its own snow. But the only water available is wastewater. Some people are not pleased.

It's not uncommon for ski resorts to make artificial snow when the real thing can't be found, but the Snowbowl Ski Resort in Flagstaff, Arizona, wants to take the practice to another level by covering its slopes with snow made out of 180 million gallons of recycled wastewater. It's a plan that is drawing ire from local Native American tribes and environmental activists alike.

Snowbowl first received the go-ahead to make artificial snow in 2005 to compensate for unpredictable weather (that's what happens when you build a ski resort in the desert). More recently, the city of Flagstaff agreed to sell 1.5 million gallons of wastewater daily from a local treatment plant to the resort.

The ski resort plans to construct a 15-mile pipeline from the city that goes to a reservoir. When Snowbowl is low on real powder, it will be able to pump the wastewater into large fans that churn out a fine mist of water droplets, which can quickly freeze into snow.

Perhaps the largest impediment to Snowbowl's plan is the Hopi Tribe, which sued Flagstaff on Friday for its decision to go ahead with the wastewater plan. The problem: Snowbowl's wastewater runoff will likely end up on land that the tribe considers to be sacred. In fact, 13 Native American tribes worship at the San Francisco Peaks—the inactive volcano range that is home to Snowbowl. And having soiled water on sacred land so that people can go skiing doesn't sit well with the tribes.

The Hopi Tribe explains:

The contract provides for the use of reclaimed wastewater in a mountain setting where runoff and overspray cannot be prevented, as Arizona law requires. Additionally, restrictions on limiting human contact with wastewater cannot be met, and harm to the unique alpine environment in the area, including rare animals and plants, cannot be prevented. The contract is also illegal under Arizona law because it will result in unreasonable environmental degradation and will further deplete limited drinking water resources.

The Hopi tribe also contends that the project violates its water rights, which guarantee that the tribe has enough water to meet the needs of its reservation.

The Coconino National Forest's environmental impact statement for the project contains a laundry list of other potential problems: visible "scarring" of the local landscape, increased local noise levels from the snowmaking machines, the potential to change soil chemistry and moisture, and destruction of wildlife habitats.

And then there are the health implications of skiing on treated poop water. Mother Jones points us to a study claiming that Flagstaff's treated wastewater may contain hormones, endocrine disruptors, pharmaceuticals, carcinogens, and more. This could cause toxicity and reproductive issues for wildlife surrounding the ski slopes. And as for the humans at Snowbowl? It's hard to say what the health impact may be—this is the first time a ski resort has attempted to use 100% treated wastewater to churn out snow. Skiers should just hope that they don't fall and get a mouthful of the stuff.

Despite the Hopi lawsuit, Snowbowl began construction on its wastewater system this past spring. But if the project fails, we have another suggestion: When real snow arrives, cover the ski slopes in bubble wrap. Patrons may be more inclined to ski on plastic than on recycled sewage.

[Image: Flickr user Andre Charland]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Candace Morehouse

    "that's what happens when you build a ski resort in the desert"... There's so much misinformation here this article shouldn't ever have been published. For one thing, Flagstaff is located at over 6500 feet above sea level - higher than Denver CO. For another thing, SnowBowl only needs to make snow when the weather doesn't cooperate fully and provide enough new powder each and every weekend for skiers - but it gets LOTS of snow each winter, without fail.

  • Mark Dines

    I think everyone needs to be educated on the technical name for reclaimed wastewater which is Treated Sewage Effluent.  So the author titled this article correctly.  However what was left out of the article was Viable but Non Culturable bacteria/viruses.  This is a major threat to human health. Basically what VNC means is that the genetic material still left in the water after treatment is looking for a host to come back alive.  That is why they don't want you drinking it.  Gut bacteria replicates about every 20 minutes and if the VNC bacteria mates and transfers its genetic into the gut bacteria you will infected that person with maybe a - Superbug?  Scary stuff that people really need to be aware of when sending their kids up to board/ski on Treated Sewage Effluent.  Of course the EPA does not regulate this even though the World Health Organization lists it as one of the top emerging threats to human health.

  • Becka

    The comments here certainly clarify how 'they' have managed to damage the planet so badly!  Is the author biased?  Well, duh, it's about time we became outraged at the destruction going on everywhere around us to support a selfish lifestyle of greed and more, more, more.  Do none of you understand the cost of our life styles to other peoples around the world???  And here again, we have a proposal that is absurd on its face -- take sewage and pump it 15 miles UP a mountain to make snow for people to go skiing???????  You should be siding with the planet, not against her, cause without her, you're literally nothing.

  • Will

    Where is the "Report Abuse" button for this story? 

    This headline is a blatant lie.  They are going to use reclaimed water, not sewage.  Reclaimed water is the same as sewage just as much as fresh fruits and vegetables are the same as what you find in a landfill.  Its NOT recycled sewage.  Its treated water.  One is Hydrogen and Oxygen.  One is hydrogen, oxygen, and a bunch of other stuff.  Learn the difference. 

    Nice job taking that study out of context too.  Treated wastewater usually gets discharged to surface bodies of water, which can often then become drinking water sources.  So, in that reasoning, most of our tapwater also containes remnants of societal drug use, which currently there is no way to treat out.  The funny part is that treated wastewater is actually CLEANER than the streams and lake it gets put back into.  Yes, we treat the wastewater, make it dirty by mixing it with "nature," and then we spend more time and energy cleaning it AGAIN for water use. 

    If you want to worry about something, worry about the snowmaking chemical present that allow this stuff to freeze as soon as it hits the air. 

  • Bette Boomer

    Lets see -  excrement that's been TREATED at a wastewater treatment plant is reclaimed water - but NOT useful, culturally pure and politically correct water. Can we cut the crap, please!

  • Brian Brickey

    A little biased are we? It's not raw sewage! It's reclaimed water.  The same stuff most of California uses to water the parks and playgrounds of cities.  Yep, not recommended for drinking, but a lot better than what most of the indian reservations around Flagstaff are using for drinking water.

    As for the 'religious' complaints, what do the Shamans do when they need to use the facilities?  If this resort was run by the tribe they'd be doing the same thing.

    Next time, try and be a little objective in your reporting.  This thing has been going through the courts for years because a tribe isn't getting a piece of the action for something that's not theirs.