Sewage Snow

Phnom Penh Ski Resort?

Those Snowy Slopes, Sprayed With Wastewater By LESLIE MACMILLAN

Skiers at the Arizona Snowbowl north of Flagstaff in 2005. This winter, the resort will spray snow made from sewage.Associated PressThe Arizona Snowbowl north of Flagstaff. This winter, the resort will spray snow made from sewage.
Green: Science

As I wrote in The Times recently, a ski resort in northern Arizona will become the first in the world to make artificial snow totally out of sewage effluent this winter. Last February, a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the resort, Arizona Snowbowl, ending a 10-year legal battle waged by environmental and Native American groups that warned that the wastewater snow would damage wildlife, human health and a mountain considered sacred by 13 Indian tribes.

Now, apart from longstanding concern about harmful chemicals in the water that will be used to make that snow — piped directly from the sewage treatment system of the nearby town of Flagstaff — new research indicates that the wastewater system is a breeding ground for antibiotic-resistant genes.

The genes were not detectable in the plant itself but “increased dramatically” at the point of use, meaning that they were found in places like sprinkler heads, the study said. “This means bacteria is growing in the distribution pipes,” said Amy Pruden, the author and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

The study has not been published or peer-reviewed, but Flagstaff officials are taking it seriously enough to have invited Dr. Pruden to serve on an advisory panel that the city formed last week.

Antibiotic-resistant genes are an area of emerging concern to scientists because they impede the body’s ability to fight disease.

Dr. Pruden suggested that the next step would be to analyze the live bacteria that might be carrying those genes through the pipes. She said the initial findings were cause for concern but that such worries “would shift to alarm” if known antibiotic-resistant pathogens were found in the water. Bacteria can cause infections in broken skin, and there is a high likelihood of cuts and scrapes during skiing, she pointed out.

Snowbowl’s general manager, J.R. Murray, noted that trace levels of chemicals and contaminants were routinely found in ordinary drinking water. The plan to convert sewage to snow “is not so futuristic,” he said. “It’s just a sign of the times.”

The reality of climate change, prolonged drought, decreasing water supplies and an expanding population make water recycling and conservation more important than ever, experts say. But, unlike drinking water, reclaimed water is regulated not by the federal government but at the state level. A lack of mandates often leaves cities and towns to grapple with the issue of how to manage their water resources while balancing the emerging science against business or economic interests.

“Scientists are now able to detect things in minute amounts that they were never able to detect before,” said J.R. Murray, Snowbowl’s general manager. “That doesn’t mean those substances are harmful.”

Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity, a conservation group, counters that water use has exploded amid broad uncertainties. “The science is ahead of the policy, but our water use is way ahead of both,” he said. He cited the multiplying swimming pools, golf courses and turf lawns in desert cities like Phoenix.

Whether to wait for the policy to catch up to the science or forge ahead with planned development is a matter of intense debate.

Arizona Snowbowl sits on public land managed by the United States Forest Service. Before approving Snowbowl’s request, the agency conducted an environmental impact assessment in 2004 that deemed the water safe for snow-making because it satisfied a federal statute — the National Environmental Policy Act — that does not specifically police any of the chemical compounds that have since been found in the water.

Flagstaff officials say they went above and beyond the federal study by commissioning one of their own in 2005 that found endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the water.

The Arizona Daily Sun reported last month that Flagstaff may develop new water treatment standards, including removing contaminants not currently regulated by state or federal law.

Meanwhile, Snowbowl’s guns are set to spray the wastewater snow this Thanksgiving.

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