FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — For two months this winter, thousands of skiers raced down the slopes at Arizona Snowbowl seemingly unconcerned that if they took a spill they might do a face-plant in snow made with water from a sewage plant.
The ski resort just outside of Flagstaff is the first in the nation to make artificial snow entirely from recycled and highly treated sewage effluent.
Although Flagstaff officials say the water that emerges from their state-of-the-art wastewater reclamation plant nearly meets drinking water standards, the resort had to overcome what many call the "ick factor" or the "yuck factor." That's the widespread public perception that recycled water is somewhat less than sparkling clean.
In overcoming that challenge — and Snowbowl officials say skiers have not complained at all — there's a chance the resort's gamble will help blaze a trail for Utah and other water-challenged states. If its use can be accepted by skiers — who may get a face full of it — perhaps it will find more acceptance and be used without worry on lawns, gardens and other less-startling applications.
"Most skiers are OK with it," said Flagstaff skier Sam Reddig as he completed a run on the lower slopes where the artificial snow has been concentrated.
The snowmaking machines have finished for the season; they operated from late December to the end of February. Their purpose is to supplement the snow that falls naturally in the San Francisco Peaks, a volcanic mountain range just north of Flagstaff.
"Most usual skiers up here are OK with it because, I mean, it's still snow," Reddig said.
Resort managers hit on the idea of using reclaimed sewer water because natural snow has typically been poor on the lower slopes, and there's no natural source of water for the resort to use.
"No free-flowing streams or lakes or ponds, which is unusual for mountains," said J. R. Murray, Arizona Snowbowl's general manager.
Nearby Flagstaff had a ready source of reclaimed sewage water and a 25-year history of using it throughout the community. In fact, the city has become a model for those who advocate broader use of recycled water. The city has 25 miles of piping for reclaimed water in a network that spreads across Flagstaff.
The reclaimed water irrigates parks, ball fields, schools and golf courses. Homeowners who live near one of the pipes can buy the water for their lawns and gardens. Industrial facilities and car washes also pay to use it.
"We're saving tremendous amounts of water," said Mark Richardson, operations manager for Flagstaff utilities. "The 1.8 million gallons a day of reclaimed water replaces about 1.8 million gallons of drinking water."
The sewage flowing into the Rio de Flag Wastewater Reclamation Plant is not what is often called "greywater" from sinks, showers and wash facilities. It also includes nastier waste from Flagstaff's toilets; it's general municipal sewage that requires treatment before release into the environment.
It flows through a series of reservoirs and tanks where it is decomposed by bacteria and circulated through a filtration system. In its last stage of treatment, the water is sterilized with ultraviolet light.
The result is something that you might not want to drink, but maybe you could.
"It is clean, there are no health effects being exposed to it, or anything like that," Richardson said. "We get a good response from people that want to use it."
Utah has nothing comparable to Flagstaff's ambitious system, according to Todd Adams, assistant director of the Utah Division of Water Resources. "We've had only a few minor projects," Adams said, such as scattered parks and golf courses.
"There were some other projects that people wanted to do, but for one reason or another, that didn't happen."
He said Utah water laws sometime get in the way of such projects because, as water is reused, someone downstream usually has water rights that may be affected.
There may be a bigger obstacle in Utah, though.
"It's the ick factor," Adams said. "It's the perception" that reclaimed water isn't clean.
That common perception caused embarrassment for Arizona Snowbowl when the snowmaking equipment fired up for the first time in December. A skier who shot video that morning and posted it on YouTube is heard exclaiming, "Last night they made snow for the very first time. And guess what, folks? It's yellow!"
As the YouTube video continues, the skier says, "If you want to ski at Arizona Snowbowl, you are guaranteed to be in the poopiest water on the planet!"
It was only a brief discoloration, according to resort officials, caused by a residue of rust in the water-delivery pipes. "We knew that we had to cleanse the piping," Murray said. "We knew that would happen."
In spite of that embarrassment, the resort seems to have gotten past the "yuck" factor. "We believed that we could overcome that with our skiers," Murray said. "In fact, we have. And there's been no resistance."
In order to win approval for the snowmaking, the resort also had to overcome years of legal battles. Native Americans considered it an insult to sacred ground. Some environmental groups raised concerns that the snow — and reclaimed water in general — is laced with traces of pharmaceuticals and other chemicals that get washed down toilets and drains.
Flagstaff officials admit the reclaimed water is not rigorously tested for such chemicals but, they say, if they're in the water, they are at extremely low concentrations. Snowbowl officials contend the reclaimed water is cleaner than what's in ponds and streams used by other ski resorts, which may be contaminated with toxic metals from mining and natural sources as well as with livestock waste and chemicals from agriculture.
Arizona Snowbowl skiers seem complacent and, in many cases, enthusiastic about the artificial snow.
"Water is a limited resource here in Flagstaff," said skier Deb Comly. "It's good to be using reclaimed water as opposed to fresh water."
Murray said this winter is one of the best in the resort's 75-year history. "In the top five," Murray said. "And I suspect that other ski resorts are looking at this as a viable option. And they should."
No ski resorts in Utah are moving in that direction, according to an email poll by the Deseret News. Most resorts indicated they have sufficient supplies of clean, untreated water.
Several communities on the Wasatch Front are developing projects involving reclaimed water, according to Alan Packard, chief engineer for the Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District. He cites one proposal to use water from the South Valley Sewer District.
"The concept," according to Packard, "is to intercept the treated effluent before it discharges to the Jordan River and pump it into existing pressurized secondary irrigation systems operated by Riverton City and by Draper Irrigation Company."
Packard said that project could begin operation in three to five years.
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