A proposed settlement about snowmaking with wastewater on the sacred San Francisco Peaks in Arizona was halted on March 8 over concerns about a lack of public involvement.
The Hopi Tribal Council voted unanimously to support the settlement in late February, an agreement that would mandate a filtration system for the wastewater, in exchange for the withdrawal of the tribe’s related lawsuit against the city of Flagstaff. In unveiling the agreement at Tuesday’s Flagstaff City Council meeting, City Attorney Michelle D’Andrea said the negotiations had been kept confidential, as required by law.
“The settlement agreement just became a public document for the first time on Friday,” she said, “and the city has not been at liberty to discuss the settlement agreement up until this presentation to Council.”
But members of the public, including tribal members and non-Native Flagstaff residents, expressed shock at being left out of the talks.
“It’s hard to stand against what the Hopis are doing, but it’s hard to be completely left out, as stakeholders,” said Klee Benally, a Navajo tribal member and long-time snowmaking opponent. “I can’t support further contamination of the sacred San Francisco Peaks.”
The Navajo Nation issued a press release on Tuesday, from the offices of President Russell Begaye and House Speaker Lorenzo Bates, expressing similar dismay.
“The City of Flagstaff has shown a lack of consultation and responsibility to consult with the 12 indigenous nations that consider San Francisco Peaks as a sacred mountain,” the statement said. “There was no transparency involving the 12 impacted indigenous nations.”
Skiing on the San Francisco Peaks, sacred to 13 tribes, has been controversial for decades. Court battles were ignited in the early 2000s when multiple tribes opposed a plan by a ski resort called the Arizona Snowbowl, located on Forest Service land, to make fake snow using treated wastewater piped from Flagstaff seven miles downhill. In 2002 the City of Flagstaff entered into a contract with the ski resort to supply the treated wastewater.
Legal challenges brought by the Navajo Nation and other opponents saw mixed success in the courts, but ultimately lost at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which decided that Snowbowl’s plan did not violate laws protecting religious freedoms and the environment. But in 2011 the Hopi Tribe found a new legal avenue in a “public nuisance” claim, alleging that the snowmaking would harm the life and property of an entire community—in this case the residents of Flagstaff and neighboring tribes that value the San Francisco Peaks.
While the Hopi suit was ongoing, in 2014 Flagstaff and the Hopi Tribe began negotiations to treat the wastewater with a $1.6 million earthen filtration system. The technical details of the system were negotiated between the two parties, and the city would be required to perform maintenance at its own cost, but there would be no set water quality standard. The treated wastewater is already required to meet water quality standards set by the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, but critics have long complained that some pollutants, including hormones and pharmaceuticals, get through the city’s treatment systems and threaten human and environmental health. The technology would be in place by the 2018 ski season, according to the proposed settlement.
Flagstaff resident Robert Vane spoke on behalf the Flagstaff Water Group, an advocacy organization, and raised questions about cost and the effectiveness of the filtration system. He noted that no testing program was part of the proposed settlement.
“I guess I’d like to suggest that that seems foolish and ludicrous,” he told the Council. “Why one would put in something like this, and then not test it to see if it’s working?”
Vane also said his group was “surprised and disappointed” to see added filtration placed at the Snowbowl pipes, “and you didn’t go further and consider a solution that would have improved water quality for all reclaimed-water users.”
Benally added that he has concerns about chlorination and the lack of an overall water quality standard.
“Basically you’re admitting there’s a problem with the water, but you’re not setting a standard for the treatment,” he said. “It sounds very disingenuous. Why not go all the way and cancel the contract? As somebody who lives in this city and has to face the fact that every time I flush a toilet in this town I may be complicit in the desecration of a site that is vital to my way of life, it’s a shame.”
Norman Honanie, chairman of the Hopi Tribe’s Water Energy Team, stood at the meeting to introduce himself but declined to comment or answer questions about the settlement, echoing the position of Hopi tribal spokespeople asked to comment for this story.
“The Hopi Tribe has done its part,” Honanie told the Council. “We’re just here to listen to what’s going to happen today.”
Flagstaff Mayor Jerry Nabours and several of the Council members raised the concern that other stakeholders—including the Navajo Nation and Arizona Snowbowl—could bring lawsuits if they were left out of a settlement agreement between the city and the Hopi Tribe. Vice Mayor Celia Barotz expressed a “sense of discomfort” about the lack of public participation in the settlement.
“I’m concerned about the fact that this is an agreement between two parties, but there are many other parties that are not part of this agreement that we may find ourselves in some very difficult situations after we’ve spent $1.6 million,” she said.
The Council did not indicate when the settlement may be considered again.