Energy & Environment

The National Park Service’s baffling ban on bottled water sales

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Visitors to America’s national parks all have one thing in common: They need to make sure to drink plenty of water while they are walking and hiking on challenging terrain. That makes the decision by the National Park Service (NPS) to permit parks to ban the sale of bottled water not only perplexing, but also potentially perilous.

{mosads}On Dec. 14, 2011, the NPS issued Policy Memorandum 11-03 regarding the “recycling and reduction of disposable plastic bottles in parks.” Regional directors of national parks may review and approve “a disposable plastic water bottle recycling and reduction policy, with an option to eliminate sales on a park-by-park basis.” To date, prestigious parks including Arches, Bryce Canyon, Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and Zion have banned bottled water sales. Other packaged beverages in plastic containers such as soda, sports drinks and fruit juices may be sold, and visitors can bring in their own bottled water.

As NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis admitted in the memorandum, the sales ban contradicts the agency’s healthy foods initiative, which is intended to provide multiple food options at park concessions, such as sustainably produced food from local sources. He also expressed concern for people with health issues and noted that the ban could affect visitor safety, especially during a long hike.

The NPS website reveals that at least 18 national parks have already banned, or plan to ban, the sale of bottled water. Instead, they provide water filling stations and sell reusable water bottles, which, according to the NPS’s 2011 data, range in price from $3.95 to $15.50.

The sales ban has been costly to park visitors and expensive for taxpayers. Grand Canyon National Park constructed 10 new water filling stations at a cost of $288,900, while Zion built three at a cost of $447,200, which means the Zion stations were five times more costly than the Grand Canyon stations. Maintaining and keeping water stations clean is critical, because failing to service them properly can make them a haven for bacteria.

As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial, this is not the sort of environment that visitors should expect. Indeed, a family who is unaware of the bottled water sales ban and visits such a park will be surprised that they have to purchase reusable bottles and use filling stations. They might end up purchasing a sugary drink instead.

In fact, that was the conclusion of a study conducted by University of Vermont Professor of Nutrition Rachel Johnson. In a July 15, 2015 piece in The Hill, she analyzed a university requirement that vending machines and dining facilities stock a 30 percent healthy beverage ratio, but no bottled water. As a result, students, faculty, staff and visitors purchased more unhealthy drinks. Despite retrofitting 68 water fountains to allow refilling of reusable water bottles, providing free reusable bottles and conducting an educational campaign on utilizing reusable bottles, the number of plastic bottles shipped to the university increased by 6 percent.

The NPS claims the bottled water sales will reduce trash, but according to Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.), the agency has confirmed that participating parks haven’t been able to determine if the policy has produced such a result.

Rothfus’s amendment to prevent the NPS from using any funds to support the policy to ban the sale of bottled water was approved as part of the fiscal year 2016 Department of the Interior Appropriations Act. The Senate version of the bill does not contain a similar provision. If the House version prevails, park visitors will again have the freedom to purchase bottled water. While the sales ban may not be big dollars in the grand scheme of a multi-trillion federal budget, it is a prime example of big, intrusive government.

Why would the NPS implement such a sales ban? Aside from a supposed yet so far unproven concern over trash, certain people object to the selling of bottled water for profit, and they like to force their personal beliefs on others. Whatever the reason, it does not make sense to ban the sale of bottled water while allowing other packaged beverages to be sold. It would be better for the NPS to provide plenty of waste receptacles large enough to collect all bottles and educate park visitors on the need to properly recycle and dispose of trash. As the nation looks forward to the National Park Service’s next 100 years, that’s a plan that everyone can get behind.

Schatz is the president of Citizens Against Government Waste.

Tags bottled water Keith Rothfus National Park Service national parks NPS
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