No Drinking Water for Snowbowl 

by CYNDY COLE and JOE FERGUSON, Sun Staff Reporters
Arizona Daily Sun
03 September 2010

Arizona Snowbowl is unlikely to be making artificial snow on the San Francisco Peaks in the winter of 2011-12 after all.

In fact, it is now unclear when or whether the ski area might start construction, much less produce the snow. That decision is now again in the hands of a federal judge after the Flagstaff City Council on Thursday decided 5-2 against allowing the ski area to use drinking water instead of reclaimed wastewater.

There's a possibility the vote might be reconsidered in favor of a five-year option for drinking water until a lawsuit over the safety of reclaimed wastewater is decided. A reconsideration motion likely would not come until next week at the earliest.

The City Council had the option of nullifying the lawsuit by selling drinking water.

Federal courts will next rule on whether reclaimed water is safe for such use, and an injunction could delay construction perhaps by one to four years by rough estimates if there is a likely appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Ironically, the council's decision to sell reclaimed water was met by applause in an audience that was largely opposed to making snow on the Peaks.

That's because the audience knew the decision to sell reclaimed water allows litigation to continue.


Council members Art Babbott, Scott Overton, Al White, Celia Barotz and Coral Evans opposed selling drinking water, but each for a different reason.

Their vote means the existing contract to sell Snowbowl 1.5 million gallons a day of reclaimed wastewater is unaltered.

Karla Brewster and Mayor Sara Presler supported the sale of drinking water to Snowbowl, with Presler saying it's the same amount of water, anyhow, and all joins together underground.

Brewster said the switch to drinking water was necessary to end the lawsuit and allow Snowbowl to begin construction as soon as possible, for jobs and to aid the local economy.

"Prolonging the issue only hurts Flagstaff," she said.

Councilmember Art Babbott said tribal concerns didn't influence his decision not to sell drinking water, any more than he would attempt to tell the Navajo Nation whether to build a golf course someday at its proposed casino near Twin Arrows.

He also said he didn't support some who want to close down the ski area, and that he skis there. The overall question for him, he said, was Flagstaff's long-term water future, expected water shortages, and a feeling that the water sale the council initially made in 2002 might be illegal.

"I have some real challenges knowing that we're taking water out of our C-Aquifer basin and putting some of it in another basin ... my understanding is that is not allowed in the state of Arizona per statute," Babbott said.


The Hopi Tribe's chairman has made conflicting statements this week about whether the tribe would allow the city of Flagstaff to tap water wells at Red Gap Ranch by running pipelines across Hopi land if a water sale to Snowbowl was reaffirmed.

On one hand, he said the tribe's pipeline considerations were not tied to the Snowbowl vote.

On the other, he said the tribe might have a difficult time considering Flagstaff's water needs in the future if the City Council felt it had enough spare water to send it to Snowbowl.

If approving reclaimed water makes the Hopi Tribe unwilling to allow the city to run a pipeline to Red Gap, "so be it," Babbott said.

He also questioned whether golf courses and other water users would be next in line for drinking water. "We have an ordinance that prohibits any drinking water for a number of uses in our community, and I have a great fear that this will open the door for a number of unwise water uses by our users," Babbott said.


Presler supported selling drinking water for snowmaking, saying it was only a choice of which water was better, and that tribes opposed each.

"I find the arguments coming in faulty to say that one is our drinking water supply and one is not," she said. She found the drinking water to be a cleaner option for the mountains.

"The local issue for me is that both of them are our future water supply, and at the end of the day for me ... the current water supply of (drinking) water is a better choice for me moving forward, and I will support that choice. I do it at the risk of those who argue that we're giving away our current water supply," Presler said.

Councilmember Scott Overton supported sending reclaimed water to Snowbowl, saying the city's role here was as a water vendor, and that tribal leaders have offered mixed messages about whether they do or don't support drinking water instead.

"A+ (reclaimed) water is what I'd like to see them use, as we send to every golf course, as we send to every softball field, as we send to anyone else who wants it," Overton said.

By offering drinking water instead, the City Council has simply angered new people without getting public approval from the tribes, Overton said.

Vice Mayor Celia Barotz said she opposed selling drinking water to Snowbowl as she cited reports about global warming in the Southwest. She also opposed using taxpayer money to pay for drinking water for recreation.

"I'm also concerned about the claim that this is not going to affect the city of Flagstaff taxpayers. We are all federal taxpayers, so we are all going to be paying for that pipe," Barotz said.

Her comments refer to a pledge by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to cover the estimated $11.4 million in higher costs if drinking water had been approved for making snow.

The city charges more for that water because it is pumped up from underground and from Lake Mary before treatment.

Alan Stephens, a representative from the USDA, said the proposal to use drinking water originated from city officials, and not the USDA.


Councilmember Coral Evans would not have supported the city's contract to sell reclaimed wastewater to Arizona Snowbowl in 2002, but now she sees it as the better option of the two water options she has, she said.

"No matter what happens here today, this is definitely not going to be a win-win situation," Evans said, due to the divisiveness of the issue.

She juxtaposed the city's likely decision to raise water rates, pressure to help struggling businesses, and findings from several water experts about there not being enough water for the future in Flagstaff.

"I truly feel that the best decision for the city of Flagstaff is to maintain the current contract," Evans said.

Councilmember Karla Brewster supported selling drinking water for snowmaking instead of reclaimed water, to get construction started and nullify an existing lawsuit.

"What are we telling our community here, businesswise? We don't want you to increase? We're not going to increase business here?" Brewster said.

She separated Snowbowl's water contract from the fact that the city is looking for new future water supplies. "Whether we give Snowbowl one drop of water, or if we decided not to give them one drop, we're still looking at a 100-year supply pipeline somewhere," Brewster said.


Councilmember Al White said it is neither the city's job to boost a particular business nor to shut one down, and he opposes any move to cancel the city's overall contract with Snowbowl, which failed on Monday.

"I believe that drinking water doesn't fit the bill for this use," White said.

He offered a hybrid proposal to sell drinking water to Snowbowl for no more than five years, with the ski area using reclaimed water for the remaining 15 years of the contract.

White explained that his motion was designed to allow construction of the pipeline immediately and temporarily use drinking water for snowmaking while the lawsuit over use of the reclaimed water can be resolved.

But despite four members of the council supporting White's motion, it failed to pass. White wanted to send his proposal to be vetted by several different citizen-run city commissions, with final council adoption in November. But Presler wanted to see his motion passed immediately.

With his motion defeated, White refused to vote for Presler's motion that sought to pass the hybrid proposal immediately.

He said he didn't want to rush into the new proposal, fearful of unintended consequences.

"Just because it was my idea doesn't make it a genius one," White said.

Before a vote on White's motion was taken, Snowbowl owner Eric Borowsky endorsed White's plan, despite the uncertainty surrounding the use of reclaimed water.

"If the courts said, 'You can't use reclaimed water,' and the city says 'You're only going to get drinking water for five years,' that's our risk and we're willing to take it," Borowsky said.


Julie Pastrick, the president and CEO of the Flagstaff Chamber of Commerce, hoped the council would reconsider their decision.

"We are very disappointed with the City Council's inability to reach a consensus in favor of amending Snowbowl's water contract today. Now, more than ever, our town's businesses need the impact of a predictable winter ski season," Pastrick said. "We're hopeful the issue will be reconsidered at a point in the near future, so Snowbowl can begin construction as soon as possible."

Attorney Howard Shanker, who is litigating on behalf of individuals opposed to snowmaking with reclaimed wastewater, applauded the decision.

"I think the City Council decision today was a step in the right direction," he said. "I think it showed that they're not just going to roll over for Snowbowl. At least for now, it showed that they're not only paying more attention to the tribes, but to all people concerned with the allocation of scarce resources."

Borowsky said the city missed out on jobs, wildfire protection, and economic stimulus that would have come with the business digging trenches and starting construction by the end of the month.

That timing is uncertain.

If a new water source had been approved on Thursday, the Coconino National Forest would again do letters and consultations with area tribes, and need to do final approval for construction.

"The real crime here is all of these opposition groups came in. And what did they accomplish?" Borowsky said.

"They accomplished that we're going to be putting reclaimed water on the mountain. That's exactly what the tribes did not want to happen. The tribes should have been in here supporting potable. These local activists are forcing us, which is fine, to put reclaimed water on the mountain."

He is weighing whether to approach certain members of the council to ask that they reconsider White's split-the-difference proposal.

-- Cyndy Cole can be reached at or 913-8607.

-- Joe Ferguson can be reached at or 556-2253.   



Reprinted as an historical reference document under the Fair Use doctrine of international copyright law.