The National Park Service's 'silly' ban on bottled water
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As the secretary of the Department of the Interior and the director of the National Park Service (NPS) testify on Capitol Hill asking for tens of millions of dollars to support infrastructure upgrades and improved amenities to encourage more visitors to come to the parks, they are also defending policies that might be needlessly costing taxpayers money and driving visitors away. This is especially disturbing as the NPS celebrates its centennial in 2016.


In December 2011, the NPS issued a memorandum that allows national parks to ban the sale of bottled water, supposedly to reduce the parks' "environmental footprint, introduce visitors to green products and the concept of environmentally responsible purchasing, and give them the opportunity to take that environmental ethic home and apply it in their daily lives." However, the parks can still sell other beverages packaged in plastic, such as soda or juice.

Congress has held several hearings during which this policy has been discussed, including March 1 and 2, 2016. Just prior to those hearings, on Feb. 26, the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA) released a report on the sales ban that exists in at least 18 national parks, from Arches to Zion.

The NPS memo stated that any park that wanted to halt the sale of bottled water had to analyze and address 14 factors, including the amount of waste eliminated, construction and operating costs for water-filling stations, the ban's effect on concessioners, and "a system for annual evaluation of the program, including public response, visitor satisfaction, buying behavior, public safety, and plastic collection rates." But based on the NPS's response to the IBWA's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, which is cited in its report, most of the parks did not follow even the most minimum requirements to evaluate and monitor the sales ban's effect. This means there is insufficient evidence to determine whether the sales ban is reducing waste.

Even for the parks that have provided information, some of the results do not add up. Zion National Park claims it has "eliminated the annual sale of more than 60,000 bottles of water, which is the equivalent of 5,000 pounds of plastic not entering the waste stream." But the IBWA found that based on the average weight of an empty disposable plastic water bottle, 60,000 bottles weigh only 1,225 pounds, or about 0.2 percent of Zion's total waste.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016 directed the NPS to provide a report that "details the data the Service reviewed and the justification for making the determination to ban bottled water at each affected park unit." That report was due on Feb. 16, 2016, but it has not been delivered to Congress and was not produced by Interior Secretary Sally JewellSarah (Sally) Margaret JewellBiden leans on Obama-era appointees on climate OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA declines to tighten key air pollution standards | Despite risks to polar bears, Trump pushes ahead with oil exploration in Arctic | Biden to champion climate action in 2021 OVERNIGHT ENERGY: EPA proposes reapproving uses of pesticide linked to brain damage in children | Hispanic caucus unhappy with transition team treatment of Lujan Grisham | Schwarzenegger backs Nichols to lead EPA MORE when she testified before the House Natural Resources Committee on March 1 and the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies on March 2.

At the March 1 hearing, Natural Resources Subcommittee on Federal Lands Chairman Tom McClintock (R-Calif.) told the secretary that he understood bottles of water were being replaced with boxed water, which are not banned, and queried how that reduces waste. The secretary said she knew nothing about that.

At a Dec. 2, 2015 hearing on the National Park Services Centennial Act, House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopGOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change House Republicans who didn't sign onto the Texas lawsuit OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Westerman tapped as top Republican on House Natural Resources Committee | McMorris Rodgers wins race for top GOP spot on Energy and Commerce | EPA joins conservative social network Parler MORE (R-Utah) expressed his irritation to NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis about allowing the sale of bottles of "Gatorade and Coke cans" but not bottled water. He remarked that it "does not make a whole lot of sense, and it does not deem well for what we are looking at in the future. That's an issue you gotta look at. I'm sorry, this is silly."

As a result of the NPS's failure to produce a timely report, Citizens Against Government Waste submitted a FOIA request on March 2, 2016 to the Department of the Interior, requesting additional data from the participating parks that would justify a sales ban and information that would support the effects and results since implementation.

Meanwhile, NPS Director Jarvis is scheduled to testify before the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee on March 16. That presents a good time for Jarvis to finally produce a report to see if he can truly justify the ban on the sale of bottled water, provide facts on how it is working, and convince Congress and taxpayers that this "silly" policy should not be reversed.

Schatz is the president of Citizens Against Government Waste.