Indians oppose 'recycled' sewage for Arizona skiing

A shot of the San Francisco Peaks in winter The San Francisco Peaks are a beautiful hike for some, a good ski slope for others, and a sacred entity to the Hopi Indians

A ski area in the US state of Arizona hopes to become the latest in a small number of resorts using "recycled" sewer water to make snow. But the Hopi Indian tribe aims to stop what they describe as the desecration of their sacred mountain.

The San Francisco Peaks tower over the baking Arizona desert. Stands of white barked aspens, spruce and ponderosa pines dot the high tundra landscape, and the mountain is the highest in the state.

The US Forest Service, which manages the land, recommends it for hikers seeking solitude in the wilderness. The mountain is a holy entity for the Hopi and other Indian tribes who lived in the area centuries before Europeans arrived.

On the mountain's western face lies the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort, a narrow 777-acre block of land poking 10,000ft (3,048m) into the wilderness area, which surrounds it on three sides.

People have been skiing there since 1938. But Arizona is one of the driest states in the US, and a recent run of dry winters has left the operators scrambling to find water to make artificial snow to keep skiers - and their dollars - on the slopes.

LeRoy Shingoitewa Hopi Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa fears the recycled water would "defile" the mountain

The resort's owners, who manage the resort under an agreement with the US government, are embroiled in a row with the Hopi Indian tribe, which has filed a lawsuit to stop Snowbowl's plan to pump highly treated wastewater from the nearby city of Flagstaff up the ski runs to make artificial snow.

The Hopi say spraying treated wastewater on the mountain - even just within the boundaries of the ski resort - would irreparably sully it and threaten their ability to carry out their religious rites among the peaks. And they say it would defile the pristine wilderness for all those who want to enjoy it without skies on.

"The Hopi people believe it is up to moisture from the sky to bring in water," says LeRoy Shingoitewa, Hopi tribal chairman and a former school principal.

"We believe that whatever comes off the mountain is pure. When you take something that is not pure and defile it, it becomes a dirty object. Would you use something in your ceremony that is not clean?"

'Less financial uncertainty'

The Hopi and other Indian groups in the area have been battling the ski resort for decades, but the recent row began in 2002, when the ski area asked the Forest Service for permission to add a new ski lift and carve new ski trails and to buy up to 1.5m US gallons (5.7m litres) of treated sewage a day from Flagstaff during ski season for snow making.

"Snow making is the only viable method to ensure consistent and reliable operating season each year with more stable visitor use and less financial uncertainty," Ed Borowsky, one of the owners of the Snowbowl, wrote in a sworn affidavit in federal court.

Courtesy of John Howley Snowbowl owners hope to extend the resort's short ski season in dry years

The operators also found that recycled sewage was the only available water source in the dry desert region.

"No matter how deep you dig, it is impossible to predict whether you will get a dry hole, a slow trickle, or whether you will truly strike water," Mr Borowsky wrote.

Snowbowl officials did not respond to interview requests, and Flagstaff declined to make officials available.

The Forest Service and later the federal courts dismissed the Indian tribes' opposition and allowed the Snowbowl expansion to begin. But this summer, the Hopi tried a new legal tactic. In a state court, they claim Snowbowl's contract to buy Flagstaff's treated wastewater violates state environmental law and ask it be voided.

In the US and across the world, recycled sewage has for decades been used in a variety of applications in which it does not come into sustained contact with humans.

Conserving water

The stringency of treatment the wastewater undergoes depends on its ultimate use.

Recycled water use across the globe

  • Namibia: In the capital Windhoek, highly treated wastewater is reused as drinking water - the only example of direct reuse in the world
  • Australia: Variety of uses, including ski snow making, residential toilet flushing and crop irrigation
  • Japan: Irrigation of parks, golf courses, sport pitches; road cleaning, car washing, firefighting, on-site reuse in commercial and residential buildings
  • UK: Treated wastewater used for fish farming, car washes, and golf course irrigation and the Millennium Dome in London reuses treated wastewater in toilets and urinals
  • Pakistan: Untreated wastewater irrigates vegetables, livestock fodder and wheat

Sources: US Environmental Protection Agency, BBC research

It can be filtered several times, zapped with ultraviolet lights, injected with chlorine and allowed to settle for long periods. It is used in golf course and park irrigation, car washes, firefighting, industrial applications, irrigation of some crops, and in toilets in commercial buildings. Except in the city of Windhoek, Namibia in Africa, it is not drunk, people familiar with the industry say. Nor is it used in swimming pools.

Recycled water advocates describe it as a process that is ultimately beneficial to the environment, because it conserves a precious natural resource like recycling newspapers saves trees.

"If one uses recycled water, you're taking pressure off of the [drinkable] water supply," says Wade Miller, executive director of the WateReuse Association, a US non-profit advocacy and lobbying organisation.

"If you're using water more than once, you're reducing your water footprint and you're reducing your energy footprint."

It is unclear how many of the more than 480 ski areas in the US use recycled wastewater in snow making operations, though the number is miniscule.

Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Pennsylvania uses diluted recycled wastewater to augment the collected surface water it uses to make snow, says Chris Marso, the executive director of operations.

"It's been treated, it's filtered," he says. "It's probably better than the pond water."

Bear Creek Mountain Resort, also in Pennsylvania, hopes to begin using recycled wastewater to make ski snow this season, in a nine to one ratio with untreated fresh water, says Mark Schroetel, the resort's general manager.

"It's a resource that we have at our disposal to use," Mr Schroetel says. "Water is at a premium. Any water we can get a hold of is added security for us."

And at least two ski resorts in Australia - a continent devastated by prolonged drought - make snow from recycled wastewater.

The recycled water taken from Flagstaff won't smell and it won't be cloudy, supporters say, but a previous US Geological Survey study has found trace amounts of some common pharmaceutical chemicals, caffeine, cleaning products, sunscreen agents and other household and industrial chemicals.

Water reuse advocates say the amounts are so miniscule as to be harmless in casual exposure.

But the Hopi fear spraying the water on the San Francisco Peaks will do lasting damage to the ecosystem there, and they are unconvinced by the science.

The tribe, in its capacity as a taxpayer and property owner in the city of Flagstaff, has sued the city to stop it from selling the water to the Snowbowl. It says that use of the water would violate state environmental laws, though the regulations expressly allow use in snow making.

"What does clean mean?" asks Mr Shingoitewa. "The more we looked at it, the more we were told by our people, you've got to protect that sacred mountain."

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  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    I like when people from afar make judgements. I happen to be interracially married with a Native American business partner along with several native employees. I live adjacent to the Hopi reservation. I find it ironic that the Hopi and Navajo Nations play footloose with their statistics and beliefs depending on what their rate of return is. You should read our local news & be in this community.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Without skies on?

    Mr. Nasaw, have you ever owned a dictionary?
    The BBC used to be thought of as a bastion of the English language. It seems to have fallen on threadbare times.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    One small, but important, correction please. The Pueblo people have lived there for thousands of years - not just centuries.
    The person who says that the Hopi shouldn't have sacred places and still professes their Jesus believes, is a racist hypocrite. If you are willing to make sacred your own idols, then you must allow others the same liberty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Here's a view from the same direction - in the summer:

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    To defile the sacred is profane.
    San Francisco Peaks is a place of great spiritual power.
    One must visit this unique ecosystem in person: Hiking among the aspen & white barked fir can be quite spiritual, if you are open to it.
    I don't buy the cynical view that the Hopi just want money for it.
    Urine alone would not defile it, the pharmaceuticals, cleaners, household & industrial chemicals do.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    UK! You must be joking. Waste from Birmingham is treated and discharged into the waterways where it is abstracted and piped to North Bristol. It's perfectly clean. However, the female contraceptive Hormone cannot be removed. Car washing and fish farming. Another example of spin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Recycled wastewater has been proven to satisfy all levels right up to and including potable for daily human consumption. Assign a target level and run standard scientific checks. So common around the world the topic is boring.

    The Santa Fe River running through the bosque behind our back meadow is such a stream. A few miles further along are safe local truck farms.

    For years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    The Hopi area according to the 2000 census has a population of 6,946 people (source Wikipedia). .05x 6946=347 so I was off by a hundred or so. One need only to be 1/4 Hopi to apply for membership to the tribe and a substantial number of tribal members do not live, nor participate in any tribal activities. Most religions are exclusive of multiple beliefs, you can be only one, not both.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    The use of reclaimed water is not a 'rational' concern. But because we're dealing with religious beliefs, reason and logic have nothing to do with it. As our climate becomes hotter and drier, choices emerge: either use reclaimed waste water or close down the ski resort - or give the tribes a piece of the action - economics may be the only thing to trump religious beliefs

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Dog Pilots comments are plain false. Thousands of Hopi tribal members participate in their traditional religion and it is one of the least Christianized groups in North America. Religious activities include the Katsina ceremonies which are tied to the Peaks. This is why the issue is fundamental to the Hopis. You may disagree with not using reclaimed water, but please stick to the facts.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    I am so tired of overseas reporters repeating lame myths without checking their facts. To wit, in this article, the reporter states "The San Francisco Peaks tower over the baking Arizona desert..."
    NO, they do not. They tower over the continent's largest continuous stand of ponderosa pine forest, hardly a "baking desert," and the city of Flagstaff (elevation 6910 feet/2106 meters)

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Holy Moly! Sacred rivers, sacred mountings, sacred buildings, sacred animals, sacred clothing, sacred water, sacred weapons, sacred people, sacred earth, sacred moon , sacred sun, etc. etc. etc.! ;And yet we still have wars, starvation, greed, murder etc etc etc. So the point of all this sacredness is???????
    It don't seem to be workin'!

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    The International Space Station uses mostly recycled water. Several communities in California are using it, too. Other than the pharmaceuticals, this water is probably as clean as what most folks drink and cleaner than some water taken from the lakes and rivers in the US or elsewhere. Defile...nah. They just want to get PAID.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Brings a whole new meaning to slush puppy

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    What next? Will the Hopis forbid animals from relieving themselves in the sacred woods?

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    There is an old saying everyone is downstream from someone. Most drinking water that comes from surface sources has waste products from upstream towns, farms and natural areas, yes the bear does shit in the woods, and it washes into watersheds and water supplies. Treatment makes it drinking water Treated grey water will be an increasing source of water in the American west, like it or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    The article left out that 95% of the Hopi are evangelized as Christians. This leave a very small ~ 200 person traditional group. They share sacred sites with the Navajos and have violent conflicts with them as well over access. However, they have no issues with the sacred sites located on their Coal Strip mine on Black Mesa, they get money for that.

    The Holy water at St. Peters is recycled.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Claims of sacred indian grounds aside, this idea is just plain gross. Who would want to ski there? I would not want to fall, I would not want to make a snowball. I would demand a hazmat suit before skiing in treated poo-water. I agree no sewage on the mountain. You don't have to be a native american to appreciate the beauty of this country and show it some respect,

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Would you walk into a church and wee on the altar? No? Then why support this proposal?

    I think in this case people's beliefs should be respected and not trampled on just so some ski resort can make even more money...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Many First Nation traditionalists - trying to save the culture of a trivialized national entity - make the leap to old superstitions to guide and protect their struggle.

    No less backwards than rightwing libertarians like Ron Paul demanding a return to the gold standard as part of his belief in the myths of 19th Century capitalism.

    Conservation requires better.

    Conservation doesn't require



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