There is a famous bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail where the King of Swamp Castle describes his struggle to build his large medieval edifice. The first two attempts fall into the swamp, the third burns, then falls into the swamp -- but, he says triumphantly, "the fourth one stayed up!"
Part of the gag is the question that goes unasked: Why are you trying to build a castle in a swamp? Would it not be easier to build on solid ground?
The effort, bolstered by yesterday's verdict in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, to maintain a ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona has a Pythonesque quality, which has started a chain reaction of absurdity, or at least toilet humor. But the threats to human safety and the environment on this occasion are no laughing matter.
The San Francisco Peaks are as suited to hosting a year-round ski resort as a swamp is to supporting a stone castle. An article from Onsite Water Treatment: The Journal for Decentralized Wastewater Treatment Solutions explains that, because the San Francisco Peaks are a remnant volcano made of very porous rock, the snow or rain that falls from the sky percolates or sublimates very quickly. There is no flowing water on or even near the peaks. The skiing may be great on the peaks when there is snow, but that doesn't make it a good place to stick a resort.
The Onsite Water Treatment article quotes J.R. Murray, who is identified as Arizona Snowbowl ski area's general manager (the article is dated 2007): "This is unlike almost any other mountain; this area has very few water sources aside from what falls from the sky," says Murray. "That’s the reason why there is an issue here. Ninety percent of ski resorts now have snowmaking because it’s required to stay economically viable due to the tremendous variability of yearly winter weather. Snowbowl does not have snowmaking because there is no water source."
Arizona Snowbowl can see almost 200,000 visitors in a year when there is snow, according to Onsite Water Treatment, but a year without snow is "a disaster. The area’s business cycle can vary by 98% from year to year."
With no nearby water source, Snowbowl would have to get creative if it wants the sort of reliably snowy slopes that a ski resort needs. That creative solution is to buy reclaimed wastewater from Flagstaff, pump it 15 miles to (and up) the mountain and, as needed, blow it into the air using fans to create artificial snow. To someone, somewhere, this must look like an innovative solution, something like making lemonade out of lemons, but to some environmentalists it seems potentially very irresponsible.
(To potential visitors, skiing on snow made from treated sewage water seems, well, just icky.)
Reclaimed wastewater has been used for a variety of purposes without ill effects, but that doesn't mean it's safe to spray just anywhere. Paul Torrence, a chemistry professor at Northern Arizona University, is particularly concerned with what would happen to wastewater situated on a high mountainside. A 2005 story in the Navajo-Hopi Observer included some of Torrence's analysis of the chemical triclosan, which is present in Flagstaff's wastewater. Torrence described triclosan as "a disinfectant chemical that kills bacteria and viruses. People put it in soaps, detergents, cosmetics and other personal care products. ... the truth is, triclosan is no more effective than soap, but it is a gimmick."
Unfortunately, in Torrence's view, it is a dangerous gimmick. He went on to explain that triclosan is structurally and chemically very close to such deadly chemicals as dioxin and PCBs. So close, in fact, that exposure to UV rays can transfom triclosan into dioxin, a known human carcinogen. Torrence said that snow made from wastewater sitting on a mountainside for months would be exposed to a dangerous quantity of UV rays.
Torrence expanded on this point in the Onsite Water Treatment article. “There is a lot more UV light up at the 10,000- to 11,000-foot elevations on the mountain than there is down in Phoenix and what we will be doing is creating dioxins up in the snow pack,” he said. Sublimation would end up doubling the concentration of chemical compounds in the snow pack. "Then when the snow melts," Torrence continued, "pollutants will pulse out, not all at once. There will be a concentration effect 5 to 20 times; combined with the sublimation, this pulsing effect results in at least a 10- or 20-fold increase in concentration of any pollutant."
In other words, the relative purity of the water being sprayed onto the mountain is only the start of the problem. Once it's up there, in Torrence's view, it will undergo chemical changes that will release some very lethal stuff into the environment. What comes down off the mountain will be worse than what went up, and once dioxin is in the food chain, it stays there. "If a hunter takes a deer with accumulations of dioxin in its fats, the dioxin will go into the consumer," Torrence explained to the Navajo-Hopi Observer. "If an eagle eats from the flesh of deer with dioxin in its system, the eagle will take in the dioxin, and it goes all the way up the food chain."
Too often, reporting on the Snowbowl plan focuses on the obvious unpleasantness of skiing on wastewater. It's hard to resist cracking jokes about not eating the yellow, or brown, snow (although ours may be the first use of Monty Python as an explaining metaphor). But the truth of the matter may be something far, far worse. Torrence says he has tried to make his case to the Forest Service, but it has fallen on deaf ears.
Catherine Propper, a professor of biology at Northern Arizona University, was also interviewed by Onsite Water Treatment, and voiced concerns about the wastewater's potential effect on wildlife. She did not make such precise predictions as Torrence did, but what she said was perhaps just as concerning for its vagueness:
"We don’t know what the effects will be when the reclaimed water is sprayed on the peaks and undergoes all the environmental effects it will be exposed to up there; it will be a big experiment."