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From sewage to snow: Arizona ski resort uses treated waste water on slopes

Laurel Andrews

After years of public debate and legal challenges, a ski resort in Arizona began spraying its slopes with snow created from treated waste water earlier this week.

The Arizona SnowBowl resort outside of Flagstaff rests on public land managed by the U.S. Forest Service, and relies solely on the waste water to create snow when the snowfall is uneven. The Forest Service website says the decision to use reclaimed water is “environmentally and economically responsible” given the water shortage Arizona and many states in the West are facing.

But the plan has been met with strong resistance. Native American tribes have protested the resort’s existence for decades, as it sits on a peak held sacred to 13 tribes, NPR reports. Last February, a federal appeals court ended a 10-year legal battle between the resort and Native American groups who warned that the snow would be hazardous to wildlife and human health, and would defile a sacred space.

The public has also voiced concern over chemicals in the water. Unlike drinking water, waste water is not federally regulated, leaving states to craft their own laws. Communities often find themselves struggling with a lack of mandates while balancing business, economy and water management interests, the New York Times reports.

And earlier this year, research showed that antibiotic-resistant genes breed in the wastewater system, adding a new public health concern to the debate, according to the Arizona Sun.

But some counter that the use of recycled waste water makes sense, and will increase in usage as conservation concerns grow.

Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, told the New York Times that “The science is ahead of the policy, but our water use is way ahead of both,” citing ever-increasing facilities using waste water, including swimming pools, golf courses and turf lawns in the state.

For all the debate, public hesitance toward cleaned sewage may be mostly psychological, to the frustration of some water engineers who say the water is clean. "It is quite difficult to get the cognitive sewage out of the water, even after the real sewage is gone," Psychologist Carol Nemeroff told NPR.

In any case, skiers looking to ride the slopes at the SnowBowl will have something to think about as they cruise through fresh powder on the hills.