FLAGSTAFF, AZ - Years after a northern Arizona ski resort submitted plans to make snow and boost business, a pipeline is ready to carry treated wastewater to a mountain that American Indian traditionalists consider sacred and has been a popular recreation spot.
For the owners of the Arizona Snowbowl, the option to use snowmaking equipment means it no longer will be at the mercy of the weather and can ensure that the skiing and snowboarding season won't be cut short.
"It's always been, `will you open?' and `when you open, how good will it be?" said Snowbowl general manager JR Murray. "That's always been Snowbowl's biggest challenge."
From the start, local American Indian tribes were against the plan. They first argued that it would violate their religious rights, then that the reclaimed wastewater would make people sick. Courts have upheld the U.S. Forest Service's decision allowing the renovations, though a challenge on the impacts to an endangered plant that lives at the highest elevation of the San Francisco Peaks awaits a ruling.
Hopi tradition holds that Hart Prairie at the base of the ski resort is the spiritual birthing place of the Kachina, which brings the world water, snow and life. Navajos are told that the mountain they call Doko'oo'sliid bowed down to their ancestors in reverence for returning to their homeland within the peaks and other sacred mountains.
Medicine men, or chanters, still gather herbs from the Peaks for use in ceremonies, and tribal members make offerings to deities.
Recognizing the contentious nature of the issue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture once withheld the permit for snowmaking even after the Forest Service approved it. The Agriculture Department tried to forge a compromise between the resort's owners and tribes to use potable water instead of reclaimed wastewater and proposed using $11 million in taxpayer money to pump it out of the ground.
But to tribes, the water source didn't matter and wouldn't change their belief that the mountain would be desecrated. The USDA released the permit in July 2010.
Protests continued, as tribal members and others chained themselves to construction equipment, spilled a 5-gallon bucket with a sign reading "caution contains treated sewage effluent" in a Forest Service lobby and camped out in a tree. The protests, along with hunger strikes and threats to boycott Flagstaff, have not convinced the city not to sell the reclaimed water to the Snowbowl or the resort to halt its plans.
Jeremiah Caughey, a 26-year-old ski shop worker, said he and others in the community have grown tired of hearing about the fight over snowmaking. He said a consistent season means he has a better chance of keeping his job even if he doesn't necessarily agree with the source of water for snowmaking.
"Any way we can do it to make the economy better for Flagstaff is a plus," he said.
The Forest Service has said that the use of reclaimed water for snowmaking is not considered hazardous for recreational skiing and snow play. Signs will be posted urging people not to purposely eat the manmade snow.
The USDA declined to comment because of pending litigation but wrote in a recent report on sacred sites that was spurred partly by the Snowbowl debate that it must communicate better and more meaningfully with American Indians on such sites.
Klee Benally, a Navajo man who has been among the most vocal opponents of snowmaking, questioned the USDA's commitment, saying if the department "really is trying to make a good faith effort in restoring relationships with tribes, this is a bad way to do it, to prevent someone's spiritual practices."
JR Murray, general manager at the Snowbowl, said tribes have made their objections clear but the decision to move forward on snowmaking that could cover about 200 acres of the 777-acre permitted area was based on economics.
"On a weekly basis, you don't know if you're going to remain open," Murray said. "That impacts the guests, the marketplace, our ability to plan. It certainly affects our employees. You just can't run a business that way."
Snowmaking would happen before the Christmas holiday if winter storms don't deliver enough snow for the resort to open by then. The Snowbowl would join about a dozen other ski resorts around the country that use reclaimed water for snowmaking, according to the National Ski Areas Association.
The Christmas holiday accounts for 25 percent of business for the ski resort that opened in 1937 with a tow rope powered by a car engine, Murray said. It has been closed to skiing and snowboarding during that time seven out of the past 32 seasons, Murray said. In some years, the season has lasted less than a month or a few days, while other seasons have hit or come close to what now is the goal of 200,000 visitors.
Standing at the base of the San Francisco Peaks, anthropologist Tony Joe, a member of the Navajo Nation, offered a prayer and wondered whether tribes did enough to try to prevent snowmaking. He won't embrace,
he said, but is accepting it.
"The one fear Navajos and other tribes have is `how is the mountain going to retaliate?"' he said. "It's a living being, it sees, breathes, hears. That mountain is not deaf, stupid. It knows what is going on."