The Secret San Francisco Peaks Talks

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 10, 2010 — 5 Comments

This past Summer the Supreme Court of the United States denied certiorari in the case of Navajo Nation v. Forest Service. This action meant that a long battle over whether an Arizona ski resort could clear-cut 74 acres of rare alpine ecosystem & create a 14.8 mile long pipeline up the San Francisco Peaks to a 10 million gallon storage pond in order to create snow from treated (but non-potable) wastewater was effectively over from a legal standpoint. The plan was fought by a coalition of 13 Native American Tribal Nations who consider the land sacred ground, and repeatedly said that using waste-water on it would be like putting death on the mountain”. Since then, it appears that Flagstaff city officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been holding secret talks in order to effect some sort of compromise agreement over the plan.

“A federal agency is pressing the city of Flagstaff to offer potable water for snowmaking at Arizona Snowbowl that does not come directly from reclaimed wastewater. In addition, Snowbowl could get government aid to cover the $11 million in higher costs for the water over 20 winters. Arizona’s two U.S. senators are blasting the plan as a waste of taxpayer money and a violation of court decisions in favor of making snow at Snowbowl with treated effluent. The proposal comes in response to tribal concerns that making snow with reclaimed wastewater desecrates the San Francisco Peaks, which they hold sacred.”

Naturally John McCain is all for spraying the mountain with wastewater, which isn’t particularly surprising, what is surprising is that some of the tribes seem to have been kept completely out of the loop.

“Among the litigants opposed to the project was the Hopi tribe, which feared snowmaking with any kind of water could interfere with the home of spiritual beings and ancestors responsible for creating snow on the San Francisco Peaks and the rain on Hopi farmlands. Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa had heard nothing of the new proposal as of Monday.”

So what, exactly, is the proposed compromise? To use “stored” water, that is, untreated well-water that comes from natural sources (rain, snow, ground) instead of wastewater from the sewer system (opposed by the tribes), or potable freshwater (which would face opposition from local residents). There’s no word as to if the tribal nations are OK with such a compromise, or who was included in the “private negotiations with regional tribes”. But now that the cat’s out of the bag, and Arizona’s Senators are vowing to block any compromise, it remains to be seen if some sort of deal can be reached.

Meanwhile, the Save the Peaks Coalition hasn’t exactly been idle, a new lawsuit has been filed to force the federal government (the ski resort is on forestry service land) to study and divulge the potential effects of ingesting snow made from treated sewage effluent.

“According to Arizona Department of Environmental Quality regulations, treated sewer water can be graded A+ even when it contains fecal matter in three out of every ten samples. This same effluent has been found to contain pharmaceuticals, hormones, endocrine disruptors, industrial pollutants, and narcotics. It may also contain bio-accumulating antibiotics, such as triclosan and triclocarban, and pathogens, such as e. coli, hepatitis, and norovirus. The human and environmental health risks, which have been largely ignored by the media, have their roots as far back as 2001 in the scoping comments made to the Forest Service about Arizona Snowbowl’s proposed expansion and upgrade. Plaintiffs involved in this lawsuit have consistently insisted that the Forest Service take a hard look at what might happen to the people, land, plants, and wildlife when they come in contact with or eat snow made from treated sewage effluent.”

No doubt the Obama Administration were hoping to effect a compromise that would mollify the tribes, allow for expansion on the mountain, and make the new lawsuit moot, but that may all fall apart now. So far Snowbowl owners and Flagstaff officials seem cautiously optimistic that some sort of compromise can still be made, but it remains to be seen what public reaction to these secret dealings will be among the activists and tribal nations fighting this battle.

To catch up on this story, you can read all my previous posts on this matter, here.

Jason Pitzl-Waters