Drinking Water Option Opens Pandora's Box of Issues 

Arizona Daily Sun
05 September 2010

It's been said that having choices can make life more interesting but also more difficult.

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's handling of the Snowbowl snowmaking permit, the Flagstaff City Council has experienced that truism in spades.

Thursday's 5-2 vote by the council not to sell drinking water to Snowbowl came only after reopening one of the more divisive decisions by a previous council in 2002. The fact that the vote returns the issue to the contractually obligated status quo of selling reclaimed wastewater for snowmaking did not make it any easier,

The USDA option to use subsidized drinking water also opened to public scrutiny secret negotiations the city had been conducting with the Hopi Tribe over a future water pipeline easement from Red Gap Ranch east of Flagstaff. And the option forced various tribal officials to clarify their position as opposing snowmaking using any water source—potable or not—that enhanced the viability of recreational skiing on the Peaks.

The drinking water option gave Snowbowl a new choice but also undercut the argument that the improvements would be entirely privately funded. It had to choose between keeping snowmaking financially independent or being the beneficiary of an $11 million federal grant and getting out from under the time-consuming lawsuit questioning the safety of reclaimed wastewater. It chose the latter, and it is still pursuing a reconsideration vote by the council.


The biggest challenge posed by the drinking water choice, however, was to the city's policymaking framework on current and future municipal water use. It exposed the lack of any binding city policy or rule on the sale of potable water to outside companies or agencies. Further, there are no benchmarks on what level of commercial water use is considered acceptable and what isn't, even for companies inside the city. Nor is there a future level set for additional water capacity that might allow some flexibility in selling water outside the city as part of a regional economic development strategy.

City officials contend there is a new policy coming soon on potable water sales outside the city to supplement a nonbinding council resolution passed more than a decade ago. But we wonder how soon that policy would have been developed had it not been for the USDA option.

The larger issue is how and when the city will develop specific goals and an action plan for new water sources to respond to commercial requests from within the city, not just outside it. If it had not been Snowbowl but a current large industrial water user such as Joy Cone or SCA Tissue coming to the city with a plan to expand jobs in exchange for more potable water, we don't think they would have been turned away without a specific calculation showing just how much new water capacity the city expected to have in 20 years and how much was available for industrial and commercial growth.


As it is, Snowbowl's request for potable water didn't really serve to trigger a long overdue discussion of the main reason the city must develop new water capacity: a sharply increased aquifer drawdown during the dry months of May and June. Snowbowl wanted to use more water during the wet months of December through March, yet there was never any analysis of how that specific request was not likely to trigger the need for a new pipeline from Red Gap or other infrastructure expansion. We have long wondered why the city doesn't consider investing in a residential reclaimed water system that would address excessive landscape irrigation with potable water in May and June before spending more than $100 million on a pipeline from Red Gap.

Finally, another aspect of the USDA option is the potential Pandora's Box the city staff have opened by setting up a new class of water called "recovered reclaimed," which is drinking water that includes well water from a part of the aquifer infiltrated by discharged reclaimed wastewater. The term turns out to be a distinction without a difference—the city's drinking water pipeline includes water from all sources.

Current city law prohibits golf courses from using "potable" water for irrigation. But if there is now a new category, "recovered reclaimed," does the ban have to be amended or can golf courses, just like Snowbowl, apply to use this water for irrigation?


The city's distinction has also drawn new attention to something that has been going on ever since the new well in Continental was drilled over the aquifer receiving the discharged A+ effluent: The city's drinking water now has trace elements of hormones and other inorganics that were not present when only water from Lake Mary, the Woody Mountain wells and the Inner Basin was being used. How long will it be before someone demands that the water from the Continental well not be blended with other sources until the risks of hormone ingestion, even at trace levels, are better understood?

So again, choices are nice to have, but they come with burdens, too. The city council, by choosing to consider the USDA drinking water option, has opened the door on a host of other water-related issues that need resolution, even if they didn't, in the end, take the USDA up on its offer.



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law. http://www4.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.html