If one Arizona resort has its way, vacationers will soon be skiing over snow made of reclaimed sewage water.
The Hopi Tribe filed a lawsuit Friday in Arizona Superior Court against the city of Flagstaff over their plans to sell 1.5 million gallons of reclaimed wastewater to Snowbowl Ski Resort.
Resort owners say that in light snow years, attendance drops from 150,000 skiers to less than 3,000 skiers. To make up for the shortfall, the resort has plans to pipe sewage water 15 miles uphill to a reservoir until it is needed for making fake snow.
In 1983, courts ruled that the pipeline would not violate the tribe's First Amendment religious rights by hindering access to the sacred San Francisco Peaks for spiritual rituals. The Forest Service finally approved the application to expand the resort and begin using waste water for snow making in 2005.
The U.S. Agricultural Research Service admitted in a 2007 study that the effects of using reclaimed sewage effluent for irrigation "are largely unknown." Northern Arizona University professor of biological sciences Dr. Catherine Propper has determined (PDF) that treated wastewater contains "a wide array of chemical and pharmaceutical compounds."
"When you put these substances into a delicate alpine environment like the Peaks, there are going to be big impacts to amphibians, other animals and the soil," the Sierra Club's Andy Bessler told Mother Jones.
The Hopi Tribe has argued that Flagstaff's contract with Snowbowl is illegal under Arizona law because "it will result in unreasonable environmental degradation and will further deplete limited drinking water resources."
"The health and safety of the Hopi people is indistinguishable from the health and safety of the environment -- protection of the environment on the San Francisco Peaks is central to the Tribe’s existence," tribe Chairman Leroy Shingoitewa said. "The use of reclaimed sewage on the San Francisco Peaks as planned by the City of Flagstaff and Snowbowl will have a direct negative impact on the Hopi Tribe's frequent and vital uses of the Peaks."
Protesters have compared the plan to dump sewage effluent on the Peaks to "cultural genocide."
"Our identity is based on our relationship with these sacred places and this -- having the source of our spiritual renewal become so contaminated and desecrated -- is a direct threat to our survival," Navajo Klee Benally said.
Watch this video from DemocracyNow, broadcast Aug. 9, 2011.