THE BLOG
04/23/2013 10:25 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2013

National Parks Should Take the Lead on America's Other Best Idea: Clean Public Water

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Our national parks are governed as public ecological trusts, not theme parks, and that's meant a legacy of conservation that matches any in the world. I think we should keep up the good work. Unfortunately, bottled water interests -- especially Coke -- disagree.

Bottled water creates a great deal of waste, both in the production stream and as physical garbage. It has no place in our national parks. Arizonans know the value of water as well as anyone, and I know you need a good canteen to enjoy the outdoors. Bottled water isn't the answer. This week, in honor of Earth Day, I think it's time to talk about other options.

As the ranking member on the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations, I'm honored to represent our national parks. I've worked on protecting them for more than a decade in Washington and for many years in Southern Arizona before being elected to Congress. Everything I've seen in that time tells me phasing out bottled water at national parks is the right move.

It has several benefits. It advances the mission of the National Park Service (NPS) to preserve and protect our environment. It also sends a clear message that water, like our parks, is more important than private profits. I applaud national parks that have declared themselves bottled water-free zones, and I hope to see this movement continue.

Parks are greening their operations all over the country. Parks are running photovoltaic systems, ensuring new buildings and renovations are models of sustainability. The NPS is using renewable energy at popular sites like the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Going bottled water-free is a logical next step.

Bottled water takes a staggering environmental and economic toll. Prior to phasing out bottled water last year, the Grand Canyon estimated that plastic bottles accounted for at least 20 percent of its overall waste stream. All those bottles -- just the ones picked up at the Grand Canyon -- took eight million kilowatt hours each year to produce. That's enough energy to power more than 700 U.S. homes for a year.

Extrapolate these numbers across the 403 units in the park system at large, and you can see how eliminating bottled water would reduce our parks' environmental footprint.

This isn't a new idea. Shawn Norton, the NPS branch chief of sustainable operations and climate change , has argued that since parks "use taxpayer dollars to manage the burden of discarded plastic water bottles," eliminating bottled water would be not only "good for the environment, but good for parks' budgets."

We have to make sure our parks' 300 million annual travelers don't go thirsty. Desert parks from Zion to my beloved Saguaro National Park in Southern Arizona have already proven this is possible. Americans have been enjoying our national parks for generations without bottled water. It didn't suddenly become a necessity. It's become a commodity -- something very different -- and one we can do without.

As a result of pressure from Coke and the bottled water industry, current policy now mandates parks to individually conduct feasibility studies to prove what each already knows: going bottled water-free reduces waste. With 14 parks already making the switch and a second wave from Golden Gate National Recreation Area to Mount Rainier considering the same, it's clear this isn't going away.

Coke and its trade association say that without bottled water, people will just drink sugary beverages instead. With clean tap and public water readily available, this simply doesn't make sense. They want to make their products seem an inevitable part of the natural experience. They're not.

As stewards of our national treasures, public officials have the responsibility to listen to the public. On the occasion of Earth Day and National Park Week, I thank the NPS for its visionary stewardship of our most treasured national places. I ask NPS officials, and you, to join millions of visitors across the country to support our parks in giving up bottled water.