First, the National Park Service said it would cut back on selling its visitors bottled water to reduce the litter left behind.
Now, Congress — under pressure from the powerful bottled water industry — is threatening to cut off the federal money the Park Service is using to replace the disposable plastic water bottles with refilling stations.
But even if that happens, the Park Service said this week it will keep encouraging the parks to halt their bottled water sales, even with an edict from Congress. Park officials said they have such strong support for these bans that they would go it alone with help from friends and allies: the nonprofit groups that donate to park projects and the companies that have been selling the bottled water in the first place.
“We believe there are plenty of workarounds,” said Shawn Norton, the Park Service’s branch chief for sustainable operations and climate change. “We believe our friends groups and our concessionaires will step up if needed.”
The cost of buying, installing and maintaining the refilling stations now in about 20 parks would almost certainly come from the Park Service’s network of friends groups and concession companies that contract with the agency to sell food, drinks, gifts and supplies.
“I feel very confident that those dollars will start flowing,” Norton said.
The Park Service’s David vs. Goliath situation comes during a standoff between the agency and the $13 billion bottled water industry over a policy Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis enacted four years ago. Facing overflowing garbage cans and ever-growing recycling and landfill costs, he told the 408 parks, national monuments and historical sites across the country that they could eliminate sales of disposable plastic water bottles, as long as refilling stations and reusable bottles replaced them.
About 20 parks have taken Jarvis up on the offer, including the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands, Arches, Zion and Bryce Canyon, with more in the pipeline, officials said. Refilling stations cost anywhere from $2,000 to $15,000, Norton said, depending on how much pipe must be laid to a water source, which often is a spring.
Things got ugly as the summer tourist season heated up: The International Bottled Water Association, which represents about 200 companies, mounted a full-court lobbying campaign on Capitol Hill to stop the Park Service’s latest effort at sustainability. The industry has found allies in House Republicans, particularly those with bottled water plants in their districts and states.
The hard work may pay off: Rep. Keith Rothfus (R-Pa.), whose state employs 6,800 people at bottled water companies, added a last-minute amendment this month onto a government appropriations bill pending in the House. The rider prohibits the Park Service from spending taxpayer money to implement any ban on sales of bottled water.
Joseph Doss, president and chief executive of the International Bottled Water Association, said that even if the Park Service can legally use private money to pay for bottled water alternatives, it should be careful about subverting the (possible) will of Congress.
“My thought would be, you certainly don’t want to be doing things that Congress has indicated they don’t want you doing,” Doss said Wednesday.
Contrary to what environmentalists might think, the bottled water industry is “a very small industry made up of very small, family-run, second- and third-generation businesses,” Doss said. (It does include companies with names such as Deer Park, Fiji and Evian.)
Some of the Park Service’s biggest food concessionaires seem to have their own sustainability agendas. At Colorado-based Xanterra, Vice President of Sustainability Catherine Greener called for some perspective.
“When guests started to come to these iconic places, there was no such thing as water in a PET bottle,” she said, referring to polyethylene terephthalate, a packaging plastic that can be recycled to reduce waste going into landfills.
Greener said that Xanterra has taken a financial hit in parks that no longer sell bottled water; but the company also works with the Park Service to install refilling stations as part of its contract.
“Like the paper versus plastic bag controversy, we want to minimize our carbon footprint,” she said. “Should the rider pass [Congress], we would work very closely with the Park Service to make sure we have the most sustainable option possible.”
Aramark, a concession company, installed refilling stations on its own at the six parks where it operates, including Denali, Yosemite, Glacier Bay and Olympic, spokesman David Freireich said. “We are moving away from plastic bottled water and introducing alternatives, such as resealable aluminum bottles, cans and cartons, and water fountains, water walls and filling stations.”
“As always, we’ll work with the NPS and our partners to develop a plan for installation of future refill stations,” if the measure in Congress moves forward, he said.
Acadia National Park in Maine has not stopped selling bottled water. “But if the Park Service came to us and said, ‘This is one of our top priorities,’ we would do it,” said Stephanie Clement, conservation director for Friends of Acadia, a nonprofit that raises money for park projects.
Clement has her own ideas about the will of Congress. “They’re responsible for funding and taking care of the parks,” she said. “I wouldn’t want to let them off the hook on this.”
The bottled water association, in a letter of complaint to Jarvis in April, alleged 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.”
Alex Shively, chief of staff for Rothfus, said of the newest Park Service plan, “If they can do it and it’s legal, fine. But the basic issue is, why are we discriminating against water if we think there’s a litter problem in the parks? Then they should ban concession stands.”
The bottled water association has spent about $510,000 to lobby members of Congress since 2011, records show, and the national parks are one of its top targets this year.
One place where the industry probably does not have to worry about losses to its bottom line is Big Bend National Park in west Texas, a weather-beaten desert.
“We don’t have much of a water supply,” said Arlene Griffis, a membership coordinator for Friends of Big Bend National Park. “If we had refilling stations, we would probably run out of water pretty fast. The park depends heavily on bottled water.”
Griffis was quick to note that the park “has an awesome recycling program. We’re not a bunch of people who drink water out of plastic bottles and throw them on the ground.”