In 2015, Congressman Ken Calvert, a Republican from California's 42nd house district, received a $1,000 campaign contribution from the political action committee of the International Bottled Water Association (IBWA), whose members include the biggest beverage companies in the world, such as Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
That same year, the IBWA's CEO, Joseph Doss, thanked Calvert for his efforts on behalf of the IBWA during their annual business conference. Calvert was their featured speaker.
"We need leaders like you in Washington who will work to help ensure that visitors from all over the world can choose the healthiest packaged beverage product when they and their families visit our nation's beautiful national parks," Doss remarked.
What Doss was referring to was the efforts of Calvert and other House Republicans, such as Keith Rothfus from Pennsylvania, who also received a $1,000 donation from the IBWA PAC and whose state is home to a $5.5 billion bottled water industry. Rothfus introduced an amendment into an Interior Appropriations bill that would have made it illegal for the National Park Service to implement or maintain bans on the sale of bottled water at any national park. National Park Service officials had been working for years to reduce plastic waste in the parks in order to meet sustainability goals.
According to Corporate Accountability International -- a nonprofit organization that works to ensure public funding for water systems and to counter what it says are misleading marketing claims by the bottled water industry -- during the summer of 2015, over 350,000 people contacted their members of Congress asking them to oppose the amendment. Then, in December, 2015, 34 members of Congress, led by Democratic Representative Raúl Grijalva from Arizona, sent a letter to National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis, voicing their support for bottled-water-free policies.
The letter stated:
On the eve of the Centennial and in line with the Parks' commitment to reduce solid waste pollution, we believe this is a sound, sensible policy that should be implemented widely across the National Park Service. This policy can be a beacon of sustainability that educates millions of park-goers about the importance of reducing their carbon footprint and preserving our public water supplies.
The amendment failed, but not before the IBWA succeeded in obtaining language that would require the park service to create a report to justify decisions by parks to ban bottled water sales.
Grijalva has led efforts to protect the National Park Service and their right to ban bottled water from the parks.
"The bottled water industry's constant attempts to halt a proven waste management technique, especially in such an opaque and roundabout way, are a good example of why corporations shouldn't be allowed to write our environmental laws." Grijalva told Truthout.
In 2016, the IBWA redoubled its efforts to keep parks from banning the sale of bottled water, increasing its donation to Calvert ten-fold to $10,000 along with higher donations to other Republican members of Congress, including $10,000 to Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, who is on the Senate Committee on Appropriations and also Chair of the Subcommittee on the Department of Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies.
This year IBWA's PAC has donated $33,500 to Republican members of the House of Representatives and $14,500 to Senate Republicans and spent $310,000 on lobbying efforts.
Those lobbying efforts paid off. In the summer of 2016, the House Appropriations Committee, of which Calvert is a member and also chairman of its Interior and Environment Subcommittee, released the language of the Department of Interior appropriations bill. Section 121 of the bill states:
Similar language is found on the Senate appropriations bill through a report:None of the funds made available by this Act may be used by the Director of the National Park Service to implement, administer, or enforce Policy Memorandum 11–03 or to approve a request by a park superintendent to eliminate the sale in national parks of water in disposable, recyclable plastic bottles.
The Committee expects the agency to withdraw this policy administratively -- that is the quickest, easiest solution to resolve this issue. However, the Committee is aware of legislative efforts in the House to overturn the policy via statute and certainly will consider this option if the Service is unwilling to reverse course on its own.
The existence of this language in the House rider and Senate report did not surprise Lauren DeRusha, associate campaign director for Corporate Accountability International.
"It is no accident that the members of Congress who have taken the most money from IBWA this cycle head their respective chambers' subcommittees with authority over [National Park Service] spending. Those same members of Congress are now some of the biggest proponents of the bottled water industry's agenda," DeRusha told Truthout.
Why Ban Plastic Water Bottles in National Parks?
The United States' national parks are popular. So popular, in fact, that the National Park Service is having significant challenges dealing with the waste generated by the hundreds of millions of people that make their way through 85 million acres of national park land every year.
In 2015, more than 305 million people visited national parks, easily eclipsing the all-time visitation record that the National Park Service recorded in 2014. Around 365 of 409 parks recorded record visitation numbers, and park officials see no reason to believe this trend will not continue.
Three hundred million people produce a lot of waste: over 100 million pounds per year, much of which consists of single-use plastic water bottles. To the companies that bottle and sell water, often at over 2,000 times the cost of tap water, those three hundred million people represent hundreds of millions of opportunities to sell their product and, at an average of $1.50 per bottle, billions of dollars in revenue.
In the first half of this decade, national parks started to take proactive steps to address the challenges that come along with more visitors, more waste and more impact to the landscape and wildlife. Park service officials were finding that one of the largest sources of trash in the parks was single-use plastic water bottles.
For a decade, Gina Macllwraith lived and worked in many of this country's national parks, including Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona and Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Her job was to make the parks more sustainable for the companies that provide food and lodging and other services to park visitors.
Gina Macllwraith stands in Teton National Park in Wyoming. Macllwraith spent over ten years working to reduce waste streams in national parks across the West. (Photo: Gina Macllwraith)
"Plastic bottles are a huge part of the waste stream," Macllwraith said. "There are so many bottles it's ridiculous. It is a major challenge and it makes me mad that [IBWA is] trying to prevent parks from dealing with it."
In the parks where Macllwraith worked, they eliminated single-use plastic water bottles and instead provided water stations and extremely affordable reusable bottles for visitors.
"We made sure we had a wide variety of price points so it wasn't prohibitive to people to buy a reusable container. We made it to be as cheap as buying a disposable bottle of water," she said.
Zion National Park in Utah was the first to ban single-use plastic water bottles, followed shortly by Grand Canyon National Park. Twenty others soon followed. And, according to National Park Service data, the bans worked.
In Arches and Canyonlands National Park in Utah officials saw a 15 percent reduction in their total waste stream and a 25 percent reduction in the amount of material they had to haul to be recycled. In Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona they saw a 20 percent reduction in their waste stream and a 30 percent reduction in their recycling load and in Saguaro National Park they had a 15 percent total waste reduction and a 40 percent reduction in their recycling load.
A recent study by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), found that more than 35 percent of park visitors drink from disposable water bottles. And nearly almost 80 percent of visitors would support the removal of single-use water bottles in national parks if it would significantly help reduce waste.
The superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park fills up a reusable water bottle at a hydration station. In 2012, Grand Canyon National Park banned the sale of plastic water bottles inside the park. (Photo: Corporate Accountability International)
DeRusha believes IBWA is pushing for an amendment to the yearly spending bill -- instead of advocating for a separate bill preserving the presence of bottled water in national parks -- because its leaders know the public supports the National Park Service's efforts to reduce waste.
"IBWA is the epitome of a special-interest lobby putting its interests above the environment and the interests of the public," DeRusha said. "It is very aware that public opinion overwhelmingly supports bottled-water-free parks, so it's using its political and economic influence to attempt to sway policymakers in its favor."
Big Water Goes to Congress
Bottled water companies -- through IBWA -- are fighting to stop bottled water bans in National Parks in two ways, according to DeRusha.
The first is a national marketing and public relations campaign to place water as a "healthy hydration alternative" to high-sugar drinks like soda and juice. IBWA argues that by banning bottled water in national parks, the government is making fewer healthy choices available. But, says DeRusha, the policy actually increases access to water in national parks.
"It's disingenuous for bottled water corporations like Coca-Cola, Nestlé and Pepsi to promote bottled water as an antidote to the devastating health impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages when, in fact, these three corporations are also the largest producers of these unhealthy beverages in the world," DeRusha told Truthout.
She points to the fact that IBWA and its members oppose using taxpayer dollars to develop water infrastructure in parks that provide limitless amounts of water to visitors free of cost.
"IBWA opposes a commonsense policy that would increase access to water in parks. Their opposition flies in the face of their purported concern for the public's well-being," said DeRusha. "Parks, with support from hundreds of thousands of people across the country, are working to provide more access to clean, public water for all through their implementation of bottled-water-free policies."
Macllwraith agrees. She believes that the public needs to push back on Big Water's marketing campaigns.
"Bottled water isn't a convenience," she said. "They are so good at convincing people to do things that we shouldn't. Buying plastic bottles full of something that we can get free. Somehow we need to take this conversation back from them. We don't need this stuff."
The second avenue Big Water is using to oppose bottled water bans, says DeRusha, is to lobby members of Congress to attach riders in large appropriation bills that would prevent the National Park Service from using taxpayer dollars to "implement, administer or enforce" any effort by parks to eliminate the sale of single use plastic water bottles.
"Rider" is the term used to refer to a provision added to a bill that has little connection with the subject matter of the bill. Riders are usually proposed as a tactic to pass controversial provisions that would have little chance of passing as their own bills.
Michell McIntyre, manager for the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, a nonprofit organization that fights the use of these riders, says they are a way for special interest groups to push their agendas through Congress to avoid public scrutiny.
"Riders, like this bottled water one, are put in because there isn't real support for it," McIntyre told Truthout. "It is so unpalatable that they couldn't actually ever pass on its own so they try to sneak it through."
The Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies appropriations bills passed their respective chambers but, like the rest of this year's appropriations bills, did not make it to conference: the final step before being sent to the President's desk to be signed into law. Congress prevented a government shutdown by agreeing to a continuing resolution that lasts until December 9, 2016.
Advocates, such as DeRusha, are watching closely what happens next, and believe there is a possibility that Congress will negotiate a new interior appropriations bill -- called a minibus bill -- during the lame-duck session before President-elect Trump takes office. Because the House version of this year's bill included the IBWA rider and the Senate bill included language instructing the National Park Service to withdraw the policy that allows parks to become free of bottled water, DeRusha expects the rider to be on the table for negotiation and that it will be up to congressional Democrats to keep it out, along with a slew of other harmful riders.
Rep. Grijalva, who led the coalition against the rider in 2015, is also focused on making sure the rider stays out of the omnibus spending bill this year.
"This year's appropriations bill should be free of riders, including this one, and any future attempts to let bottled water companies tell the National Park Service how to do its job should be debated in the light of day. It's important to remember the Park Service will happily fill the water bottle of any visitor who chooses to bring her own. This rider is about making money by selling plastic at our national parks, not about helping or protecting the public."
Even if efforts by Big Water to stop parks from banning bottled water fail now, advocates know the industry will keep pushing and are likely to succeed under a Trump presidency with Republican control of the House and Senate unless the public pushes back.
"Donald Trump has promised to "drain the swamp" in Washington when it comes to corporate influence, but all early indications are that he will, in fact, try to entrench corporate power at the expense of the common good," DeRusha said. "But we are emboldened by the hundreds of thousands of people who are standing up to the bottled water industry to protect the environment and democratic control of our water. Now is the time to double down on growing this grassroots movement to be even more robust and effective. It is the only way to achieve common sense policies to safeguard our communities and our planet."
Alexis Bonogofsky is a fourth generation Montanan, rancher and anti-coal organizer who was featured in the recent climate change documentary This Changes Everything. In 2014, she was awarded a Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation.