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How Big Water is trying to stop the National Park Service from cleaning up plastic bottles fouling the parks

View of the Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. (Gabriel Bouys/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

The National Park Service thought it had a good strategy for reining in the discarded water bottles that clog the trash cans and waste stream of the national parks: stop selling disposable bottles and let visitors refill reusable ones with public drinking water.

But Big Water has stepped in to block the parks from banning the plastic pollutants — and the industry found an ally on Capitol Hill to add a little-noticed amendment to a House spending bill that would kill the policy.

As environmental groups and local officials campaign for a sales ban to reduce park waste and carbon emissions, the titans that manufacture Deer Park, Fiji, Evian and 200 other brands of water packaged in disposable plastic have mounted a full-court lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill to stop the Park Service’s latest effort at sustainability.

“This is a prominent, misleading attack on bottled water that has no justification,” said Chris Hogan, vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association, which represents 200 bottlers from Glacier Springs to Evian and is leading the charge against bottled-water restrictions.

Beyond the threat to its bottom line, the industry–which did $13 billion in sales last year– is warning the Park Service that its “misguided” attempt to help the environment is actually helping Coke and other “unhealthy” packaged beverages by forcing park visitors on hot summer days to guzzle them instead of water.

Park Service Director John Jarvis’s goal seemed logical enough when he issued a memo to the system’s 408 parks, national monuments and historical sites, allowing them to eliminate sales of disposable plastic water bottles. The bottles were clogging the waste stream, he wrote in 2011, eating up recycling budgets at a lot of parks.

“We must be a visible exemplar of sustainability,” Jarvis wrote. “When considered on a life-cycle basis, the use of disposable plastic water bottles has significant environmental impact compared to the use of local tap water and refillable bottles.” The impact is magnified in remote parks, which pay a premium for litter removal and waste disposal, he wrote.

In an interview, Shawn Norton, the Park Service’s branch chief for sustainable operations and climate change, said: “We came to realize we were in a sea of plastic water bottles. The garbage cans at some parks were overflowing.”

Today, about 20 parks have sworn off water sales, and they include some of the most popular tourist attractions in the country: Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks, and Mount Rushmore. Park officials say the number could be higher, because parks are not required to notify headquarters when they change their policies on concessions.

Zion National Park calls its water-filling stations a “sustainability success story,” saying on its Web site that the park has eliminated the annual sale of 60,000 bottles of water, “the equivalent of 5,000 pounds of plastic not entering the waste stream.”

But Jarvis had acknowledged that the policy ran the risk of “leaving sugary drinks as a primary alternative” to bottled water. “Even reasonably priced reusable water bottles may be out of reach for some visitors, especially those with large families,” he wrote.

This became the foundation of the bottled water industry’s public relations campaign: The parks are reneging on their pledge to encourage a healthy lifestyle.

The IBWA wrote to Jarvis in April, alleging that the reduction in bottled water sales may be “having adverse impacts on public health and safety” by encouraging visitors to substitute “less healthy beverages” for “clean, healthy bottled water.”

The association, which has spent about $510,000 to lobby members of Congress since 2011, records show, made the national parks one of its top lobbying targets this year.

At a hearing on the Park Service budget this spring, Jarvis was grilled by House Republicans on the bottled water policy. He noted that parks have not prohibited visitors from bringing in bottled water.

In recent weeks, the industry has turned to legislative maneuvering to stop the restrictions on water sales, finding an ally on Capitol Hill to add a last-minute amendment to a government appropriations bill in the House last week. The measure prohibits the Park Service from using taxpayer money to eliminate disposable plastic bottles in parks.

“Families who don’t own expensive camping equipment and aren’t experienced hikers and climbers will be surprised to find out that they can’t buy their child a bottle of water at one of our national parks,” Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.) said on the House floor as he introduced the legislation, which is on hold while lawmakers suspend work on appropriation bills to debate their differences over the Confederate flag. “Temperatures at the Grand Canyon just this week will top 100 degrees. Visitors who may have forgotten or have run out of water could be put at risk of dehydration.”

Pennsylvania has several bottled water producers. According to the bottled water association, the industry brings $5.5 billion to the Pennsylvania economy every year and employs 6,800 people.

The Park Service, as a federal agency, is in a delicate position. It cannot lobby directly for or against the Rothfus amendment.

“We have not taken a position on the legislation,” said Jeremy Sweat, a legislative affairs specialist for the Park Service.

But park advocates say the bill shows the clout of an industry that’s worried about losing profits.

“There’s no reason for this bill to come out of left field,” said David Nimkin, senior regional director for the Southwest for the National Parks Conservation Association, an advocacy group. Nimkin called the bottled water policy a “reasonable and appropriate move on the part of the Park Service to help its visitors recognize that water is critically important.” He noted that the by providing water stations to refill bottles, the Park Service is “encouraging visitors to hydrate for free.”

Alice Crites contributed to this story