Paying the price for a Snowbowl lift ticket

Blowers on Mount Humphreys cover Snowbowl with snow made from reclaimed water. Photo courtesy of Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort.

The issue of Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort using the San Francisco Peaks has been debated for decades between the United States Forest Service, Snowbowl and the indigenous tribes who hold Mount Humphreys as culturally significant. Snowbowl set up shop in 1938 and since then, activists have protested the use of the mountain for various reasons, ranging from the development of the resort and ski area to the use of reclaimed water to generate man-made snow.

Klee Benally, who is Diné (Navajo), is a coordinator and volunteer with Protect the Peaks!, a website that functions as a medium for community members to voice concerns and protest the use and development of Snowbowl on the San Fransisco Peaks. Benally has expressed his concerns with Snowbowl violating sacred lands since the 1980s.

Benally said there are 22 federally recognized indigenous tribes across the state of Arizona. He said the mountain is culturally significant to all of the indigenous nations, and 14 of those hold the mountain as holy and sacred to their culture. The 14 tribes are: Navajo Nation, Hopi, Zuni, Hualapai, Havasupai, Yavapai-Apache, Yavapai-Prescott, Tonto Apache, White Mountain Apache, San Carlos Apache, San Juan Southern Pauite, Fort McDowell Mohave Apache, Acoma and Tohono O’odham.

“For Diné, the mountain is viewed as a single, living entity and so, as traditional practitioners, we actually don’t set foot on the mountain unless we have specific purpose, offering or prayer,” Benally said. “For Diné people, the San Francisco Peaks are one of six holy mountains that uphold our universe. It’s hard to say it’s a church because it is a place of worship, but it’s more akin to an altar where we make offerings. It’s like the Vatican, the whole grounds are sacred.”

Benally said the mountain is where deities of many indigenous cultures live. To the Hopi Tribe, the San Francisco Peaks are the most sacred mountain in their cosmology and where their deities — the Kachinas — live. The Kachinas bring blessings of moisture and Benally said snowmaking endangers those beliefs.

“[The Hopi] prayed to [Kachinas] as part of their whole life cycle,” Benally said. “If man can make snow … then what does that say for the role of Kachinas. They’re afraid that they’ll abandon them.”

J.R. Murray, the chief planning officer of Mountain Capital Partners, LLC, which is the parent company of Snowbowl, said the San Francisco Peaks are approximately 70,000 acres in space, and Snowbowl uses 777 acres, or 1%, of the mountain. The Coconino National Forest leases the land to Snowbowl, according to a 2005 U.S. Department of Agriculture report.

Although there are issues regarding the use of the mountain, Snowbowl boosts the local economy by attracting tourists during ski season. According to a fall 2019 W.A. Frank School of Business report, an economic impact analysis of Snowbowl shows that approximately $58 million is contributed annually to the region’s economy. The economic contribution stems from “expenditures for payroll, operations and capital projects while supporting more than 700 jobs.”

Murray said Snowbowl has attempted and continues to try to better accommodate the native tribes’ cultural beliefs. Snowbowl has offered to partner to create a cultural center, and utilize its facilities for events. Murray also personally meets with various tribal government officials.

“The mountain is sacred. We’ve never denied that, or we don’t discount that. In fact, we are very aware of that,” Murray said. “We acknowledge those deeply held cultural beliefs, but we also believe that we should be able to coexist here and be able to offer a recreational product. And that requires snowmaking.”

Reclaimed water at Snowbowl

Using reclaimed water to generate man-made snow at Snowbowl on the San Francisco Peaks has also been met with resistance since the pipeline that takes water to Snowbowl was installed in summer 2012. Murray said the city’s contract states Snowbowl may use up to 180 million gallons of reclaimed water per year to create snow.

Murray said for the 2019-20 season, Snowbowl has used less than 50% of the 180 million gallons, and Snowbowl uses between 70 and 100 million gallons of reclaimed water each year, which is less than the city’s contract capacity. For indigenous tribes, this amount of reclaimed water was too much.

“To make snow out of treated sewage, with it being transported by a 14.8-mile pipeline up the mountain, spraying up to 180 million gallons per year, is an extraordinary insult that there is no middle ground,” Benally said. “And so, the city of Flagstaff has been extraordinarily callous. They’ve completely disregarded the concerns of indigenous people.”

Brad Hill, the director of water services for the city of Flagstaff, has 32 years experience with water resource hydrology. Hill said the Water Services office is regulated by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality and the Arizona Department of Water Resources. The state defines reclaimed water as water that has been through a municipal wastewater treatment process and sufficiently cleaned to meet the water quality standards regulated by the state.

“The city treats it to its highest regulated quality, known as class A-plus,” Hill said. “We are regulated by the Department of Environmental Quality and under that regulation, they state that snowmaking needs to be a collect quality class A reclaimed water, and we deliver them a class A-plus, which is de-nitrified.”

Although the city produces high-quality reclaimed water, there are still concerns regarding Contaminants of Emerging Concern (CEC) that slip through the treatment process. According to a presentation by Flagstaff Water Commission member Ward Davis, there are over 15 classes of CECs. Some CECs include: antibiotics, disinfectants, fragrances, pesticides and herbicides, personal care products and pharmaceuticals.

Alicyn Gitlin, the Grand Canyon Program coordinator for the Sierra Club, is concerned by all classes of CECs, but specifically with pharmaceuticals, which could be found in water runoff.

“Basically, reclaimed water contains everything that we put into our drain, everything we flush down our toilet, and therefore, it contains pharmaceuticals and hormones,” Gitlin said. “The problem with these Contaminants of Emerging Concern is that … a very tiny amount could have an effect on wildlife and on humans because they act like a hormone in the body. For some of these chemicals, a tiny amount is even more hazardous than a larger amount because we can filter out and detect larger amounts of these chemicals, but our body can’t always detect and filter out very micro amounts of them.”

Although the issues regarding usage of the mountain and reclaimed water to generate man-made snow are not resolved, Benally said those who oppose Snowbowl should voice their concerns. Snowbowl will continue to operate on the mountain and use reclaimed water to generate snow when needed.

“A lot of people come to northern Arizona to go to school here, and part of what they see is recreational opportunities in the winter,” Benally said. “But they need to understand what that lift ticket, the price, actually is, and that it is the price of cultural genocide for indigenous people.”