The Nasty Environmental Impact of Making Snow

Snowmaking_tim_syndeySnow gunning. Photo: Tim in Syndey/Flickr

Pointing to the sacredness of the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Arizona, a coalition of Native American tribes has been fighting the development and expansion of Arizona Snowbowl ski resort since 1979. It remains defiant, reports the New York Times, despite having suffered a key legal defeat this winter. A federal court ruled against the tribes in a nearly decade-old lawsuit that claims the ski resort's plans to use treated wastewater from Flagstaff's sewage system to make artificial snow for the resort would interfere with religious practices and mar the mountains. 

Wait. The resort will use sewage to make snow? Technically, yes. That's why the story has garnered lots of attention. But recycling treated wastewater for applications that do not require potable water is not nearly as icky, nor as uncommon, as it might sound. This type of water is commonly used for irrigating golf courses and soccer fields, for example.

While Arizona Snowbowl would be the first resort in the U.S. to use 100 percent treated wastewater to make snow, it's a common practice in Europe and in parts of Australia, says Hunter Sykes, an environmental sustainability consultant who closely tracks the outdoor recreation industry and produced a 2007 documentary about the environmental impacts of rampant ski resort development called Resorting to Madness. "Most people who work with wastewater don't see this an issue, because it's not going to make people sick and, as far as we know, it's not going to contaminate flora or fauna," he says.

Not everyone is quite so comfortable, though, with the idea of using treated wastewater for snowmaking. Among the groups that oppose it, on the grounds that the water may contain chemical inputs from pharmaceuticals and other potentially hazardous hard-to-trace sources, include the Center for Biological Diversity. Sykes agrees that there is still much we don't understand about the chemical agents that persist in treated wastewater and how they could impact the ecosystems into which they're released, but says if it was up to him, he would use the treated wastewater.

Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaigns director for the Center for Biological Diversity points to a study that linked wastewater effluent released into a creek in Boulder, Colorado, with abnormal fish gender distributions. "There is an emerging and growing list of compounds [about which] we don't know the affects," he says, but we know that endocrine disruptors [in wastewater] will change fish sex ratios. This points to the need for additional research and more advanced water treatment."

But McKinnon and Sykes do agree on one thing: the real story here is the increase in snowmaking, industry wide, and the wider environmental impacts of making snow.

Filed To: Science, Snow Sports, Skiing and Snowboarding

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