Don’t Eat Yellowstone’s Snow: Elite Ski Resort Aims To Turn Wastewater To Powder

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An exclusive Montana resort wants to turn sewage into snow so its rich and famous can ski its slopes during a shrinking winter season due to climate change.

The Yellowstone Club – a ski and golf resort just north of Yellowstone National Park that has Bill Gates, Justin Timberlake, and Jessica Biel among its members – has applied to Montana’s Environmental Quality Department for a permit. to use wastewater for snowmaking operations on its ski slopes.

A dozen other ski areas across the United States have already used sewage to make artificial snow, but the Yellowstone Club is said to be the first in Montana. The technique has also been used in Europe and Australia.

Club officials say the program would not only ensure that the slopes open on time, usually in late November and early December, but also replenish the region’s watershed and keep the streams going longer in the season. And that would allow the growing resort area of ​​Big Sky to handle its growing volumes of wastewater.

“It’s an idea outside the box,” said Rich Chandler, the club’s environmental manager. “But he also checks a lot of boxes.”

Is this a safe plan for the wealthy and celebs who occasionally ingest it when wiping off the slopes? The short answer from state officials is yes. The method is safe for people and the environment as long as there is close monitoring to ensure contamination levels remain within standards, according to an environmental scan.

But, state officials said, that scan did not look at potential pollutants for which there are no environmental standards in wastewater, such as traces of prescription drugs.

A similar effort to turn sewage into snow was controversial at the Arizona Snowbowl ski resort near Flagstaff. To combat the snowless winters there, the resort in the early 2000s bought the Flagstaff sewage and pumped it from the treatment plant to the ski area, where it would be turned into snow and sprayed onto the peaks. of San Francisco.

This sparked protests from the Hopi tribe, who said the artificial snow posed risks to public health and the environment and would desecrate a mountain it considers sacred. The tribe has lost a lawsuit to prevent the Arizona ski area from moving forward with the plan. In December 2012, the ski area ignited its snow cannons and started to powder.

During the legal battle, environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity have raised specific concerns about how sewage may reduce local aquatic populations and cause some male fish to adopt reproductive appearances and traits. female.

The effect of wastewater on human health is also of concern. Although modern water treatment can remove many pollutants – and in some cases prepare that water for human consumption – some elements still escape the process, especially pharmaceuticals. Research is in its infancy, but a 2017 study by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization found that only half of pharmaceutical compounds were removed in the process of treating the drug. ‘water. He noted that the evidence suggests that some of the chemicals could also affect human reproductive systems, just as studies have shown in aquatic life.

“Modern wastewater treatment plants primarily reduce solids and bacteria by oxidizing the water. They were not designed to handle complex chemical compounds, ”said Birguy Lamizana-Diallo, program management officer at the United Nations Environment Program and wastewater treatment expert.

Montana officials are quick to point out the differences between their plan and what happened in Arizona. On the one hand, the ski area near Flagstaff often makes all of its snow from treated wastewater, while the Yellowstone Club will use it, at least initially, on only about 10% of the 2,700 acres of ski terrain and usually only in October and November to create a base layer for its ski slopes. In December most people snow would ski and ride would be natural.

But perhaps the biggest difference between the two projects is the Yellowstone Club’s level of support for its plan, which is backed by environmental and conservation groups including the Gallatin River Task Force, the Irrigators Association. agricultural Gallatin and Trout Unlimited.

The idea of ​​turning Big Sky’s wastewater into snow has been brewing for over a decade and was born out of a collaboration between the Yellowstone Club and other local groups concerned about the depletion of the snowpack due to the change. climate, which could starve the area’s streams and water streams later in the season.

Yellowstone already uses treated sewage to hydrate its golf courses, and in 2011 it partnered with the Montana DEQ and the Gallatin River Task Force to see if they could safely turn the same water into snow. Chandler, the club’s environmental manager, said they had successfully turned half a million gallons of sewage into 2 acres of snow about 18 inches deep.

Kristin Gardner, executive director of the Gallatin River Task Force, said the snowmaking process effectively removes wastewater by blasting it from a filtered snow gun that atomizes the water.

“It’s an extra layer of security for the human health side,” Chandler said.

Chandler said the information gathered from the pilot study forms the core of the ski club’s claim with the Montana DEQ. A draft permit provisionally approving the project has been issued by the state agency, and a final decision is expected later this year.

DEQ officials have said the wastewater used to make snow will be treated to the highest possible standards and that they can only issue permits to projects that will not pollute state waters. But the effect of pharmaceuticals remains uncharted territory. Amy Steinmetz, head of the public water supply bureau, said neither the DEQ nor the US Environmental Protection Agency had standards to specifically treat wastewater for pharmaceuticals.

“Science is still emerging on this,” she said.

If the DEQ issues its final permit this year, the Yellowstone Club will most likely begin turning wastewater into snow by the end of 2022. It will then be required to post signs instructing skiers not to consume snow. Similar signage can be found at Arizona Snowbowl.

Chandler said the Yellowstone Club takes pride in the collaborative work and that ultimately the process will benefit the community and the watershed. According to Chandler, bringing more snow and increasing the snowpack in winter will increase summer runoff in the region’s streams by about 19 days, a big win in the increasingly arid West. It’s also better than the alternative, he said: treating the wastewater and then just pushing it straight into the Gallatin River.

“It’s not like the Earth is producing more water, so we have to use what we have efficiently,” he said.

This message was previously posted on khn.org.

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