Flagstaff City Council Votes No Drinking Water for Snowmaking
Citizens and Environmental Groups Gain Victory for Wise Water Use
By Klee Benally
FLAGSTFF, Ariz. – After 4 hours of meeting Flagstaff City Council voted 5-2 to not amend a proposed substitute agreement to sell 180 million gallons of Flagstaff’s drinking water to Arizona Snowbowl for snowmaking on the Holy San Francisco Peaks.
More than 150 concerned community members attended including Tribal representatives from Hopi, Navajo and Havasupai Nations.
“I am grateful that wise water use in Flagstaff won today although we still have many challenges ahead of us,” said Russell Crawford, Graduate Student in Sustainable Communities at Northern Arizona University. “It’s clear that this private business’ attempt to use our precious drinking water for recreation was a horrible idea. We must continue to work for respectful, sane and sustainable solutions for our entire community, and that means our whole region. This has to be done for our children and all generations to come."
According to the Arizona Daily Sun the city of Flagstaff uses half the groundwater in central northern Arizona. Snowbowl would have taken about 5 percent of all the potable water the city used. According to City staff, Flagstaff is expected to run out of drinking water by the year 2050.
On Monday, August 30th at Sinagua Middle School more than 700 community members and neighboring Tribal representatives met for 7 hours for spoken public input and presentations by Snowbowl, Flagstaff City staff and other interests. No spoken public input was taken on Thursday except as requested by City Council.
Questions were raised by council members after a USDA representative could not answer questions involving Tribal consultation and how the proposed amendment to use drinking water instead of wastewater came about. There seemed to be confusion whether the proposal originated from the USDA or City staff. Although it was stated by the USDA that the idea originated from City staff, City manager Kevin Burke tried to defer it to the USDA.
The deal was initially presented as a “less offensive” option for Tribes who hold the San Francisco Peaks holy, but overwhelmingly the Tribes opposed the plan.
The government also offered $11 million taxpayers dollars to offset paying for the higher costing drinking water in a move criticized as a corporate bailout. When pressed, the USDA stated that the funds weren’t guaranteed but could be taken from “various sources.”
“This was a failed attempt by City Manger Kevin Burke, Arizona Snowbowl & the USDA to undermine the current lawsuit over National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and sidestep the health threats if humans ingest snow made from treated sewage effluent.” Said Klee Benally, Flagstaff resident & media liaison for Truesnow.org. “Kevin Burke & the USDA initially tried to railroad this plan through but the community caught them and ultimately it was community pressure that stopped them.”
With a successful NEPA lawsuit, the current City Contract to sell wastewater for snowmaking could be rescinded.
A majority of the council stated that they were interested in how the NEPA lawsuit would end.
The suit asserts, among other things, that the Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) prepared by the USFS ignores the possibility of human ingestion of snow made from treated sewage effluent. Snowbowl would be the only ski area in the world to use 100% wastewater to make snow.
“The City Council has done a great service for our present and future citizens by not selling our drinking water and allowing for the NEPA case to be heard.” Said, Moran Henn an environmental scientist & Flagstaff resident. “Everyday there is new evidence of the toxicity of wastewater.”
Citing the City’s practice of “co-mingling” or injecting wastewater directly into water sources where drinking water is pumped from, Mayor Presler stated she saw no difference in using treated sewage effluent or drinking water for snowmaking.
“Flagstaff’s citizens should be very concerned,” said Avi Henn, environmental scientist and Flagstaff resident, “If we listen to City staff and seriously consider their projections of future water shortages by 2027 we would have to cancel the snowmaking contract because we’ll need every drop of water to drink. Or, as scientists like Dr. Cathy Propper have proven, we’ll desperately need to find another source of water because ours is already contaminated with hormones, pharmaceuticals, and other known ‘endocrine disruptors’ that the City admits they don’t test for or treat for. However you look at it we need find a way out of this contract, it’s a bad deal for Flagstaff.”
“The City Council decision is a step in the right direction as far as recognizing the needs of the neighboring Tribes which contribute greatly to the Flagstaff economy.” Said Howard Shanker, attorney for the Save the Peaks Coalition and other plaintiffs. “It also acknowledges the comments of reasonable people concerned with the wise allocation of a scarce resource.”
Council member Al White motioned to amend the agreement to allow potable water to be used for 5 years followed by use of reclaimed water for 15 more years and put it through Flagstaff’s water, tourism, and sustainability commissions and public comment plus legal vetting before Council process. The motion was voted down 4-3.
Presler re-motioned to amend the agreement to allow potable water to be used for 5 years and then switch to reclaimed water without bringing it before the commissions and public. That motion failed 4-3.
Council member Celia Barotz’ original motion to vote for keeping with current agreement was seconded by Coral Evans. Upon re-consideration, after the modifying motions were voted down, the vote was 5-2 in favor.
Ultimately water conservation issues outweighed cultural and economic concerns.
The council took no consideration of the Tribe’s position on no snowmaking or other possible solutions.
“We are against any artificial snowmaking. Let mother earth handle snowmaking, not man made snow” stated Havasupai Tribal Council Member, Carletta Tilousi.
“They asked us to be here, they wrote to us and invited us to be part of the process so we voiced our opinions regarding the sacredness of the Peaks. It was offensive to hear Council members state that they will not listen to neighboring Tribes.” Tilousi said.
“At the end of the day I answer to people who vote in my community.” Stated, Council member Art Babbott. He stated “We will make very bad policies here if we allow entities outside our jurisdiction to dictate what we do.”
Expressing concern that the C-Aquifer is diminishing Council member Babbott stated, “This will allow very unwise water decisions by our users.”
Council member Karla Brewster argued economics in her support for snowmaking but also stated the, “20 year contract to sell potable water was too much.”
Council member Coral Evans raised a concern that she felt there was, “No possible win-win situation.”
Evans also stated that she was, “Concerned about the cost of water being raised in Flagstaff.” And that “we’re going to harm future generations.”
For Council member Al White the issues was about, “Environmental sanity, reclaimed over potable water.” And stated that the, “Issue is not whether you’re pro-business or pro-environment, its about sound water use policy.” He also stated, “Let the lawsuit go on. It’s going to deal with the issues of use of reclaimed water. It isn’t our role to call a lawsuit frivolous.”
Nearly every Council member voiced their concerns over Mayor Presler’s initial proposal to add discussion of suspending the current existing contract to the agenda.
Some Council members spoke of the dangers of reclaimed water. Art Babbott stated that reclaimed water could contaminate another water source, and this could be a potential violation of the Crown Water Management Act.
“We need to evolve as a human species to survive in this changing environment.” Said Hertha Woody, parent, educator, Flagstaff citizen and member of the Navajo Nation, “We should not waste any water in a warming environment.” Woody also observed racially based comments from Council members that made her question, “Does this council think that Native Americans don’t exist within City limits?”
“I’m happy that we got this far and they didn’t approve selling our drinking water.” Stated Teresa Garcia, 15, student of Coconino High School. “If they would have approved this plan, we would be getting the worse end of this deal in 20 years.”
How they voted:
No drinking water for snowmaking:
For drinking water snowmaking:
Council member Brewster
For more information & background please visit: http://www.truesnow.org/.