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Winston Armani, Deseret News
Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park will ban the sale of plastic water bottles as of March 1, 2012.

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK — A war over disposable water bottles in the national parks has moved back to Utah where it first began four years ago.

Zion National Park eliminated sales of the ubiquitous disposable bottles in 2008. A similar ban more than a year ago at Arizona's Grand Canyon National Park was temporarily derailed by controversy involving the Coca-Cola company.

Now, a feud has erupted over a proposed ban in southeastern Utah's Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

Only sales of water bottles would be banned, not possession.

"I've not heard anyone even discuss a possible ban on bringing them in from outside the park," said Paul Henderson, assistant superintendent of the two parks.

The new policy is intended to lessen the impact of park visitors on waste volume and landfill space. "Recycling, or changing our habits a little bit, goes a long way toward making us greener," Henderson said.

The proposal has run into flak from an unexpected direction. Park rangers and others say it could lead to safety issues because some visitors may not carry adequate water during hikes.

"When the landfill trumps visitor safety, we think the decision being made is not a good one," one source said after requesting anonymity.

As of March 1, it will no longer be possible to buy disposable water bottles at retail outlets within the boundaries of the two parks near Moab. The Canyonlands Natural History Association has agreed to voluntarily eliminate sales at three nonprofit stores the organization operates within the parks. Instead, visitors will be encouraged to buy refillable non-disposable containers.

According to Henderson, park managers hope to finalize a formal sales ban this spring, in accordance with guidance from National Park Service headquarters in Washington.

Many park visitors can't seem to get by without the familiar disposable bottles. 

"I don't have to buy something that I'm worried about losing," said Kathy Shaw of Austin, Texas. "And, I don't know, they're just convenient."

Shaw stopped at the Arches visitors center to refill her disposable bottle. "I've had this bottle for probably two years," she said. "I mean, it's the same bottle. I don't throw them away."

In that sense, she's doing what the park service wants: helping alleviate a crush of plastic waste that's been piling up in trash cans. About a year ago, managers at Arches and Canyonlands noticed that disposable bottles had become the biggest component of their solid waste volume.

Refilling of disposable bottles is apparently not the national norm. According to data prominently posted at the Arches visitor center, the average American throws away 167 plastic bottles each year, almost one every two days per person.

Henderson finds it ironic that Americans buy so much water, often at well over a dollar a bottle. "We complain all the time about the price of fuel," Henderson said, "and yet we spend more for a gallon of water than for a gallon of gas."   

Park visitor Gloria Barber said there's been a cultural change. "I'm from a generation way back from this generation coming up," she said, "and they're from a disposable generation."

The nonprofit stores within the two parks will remove water-bottle vending machines at the end of February. They will also eliminate sales of alternative drinks such as Gatorade in disposable containers.

The decision is apparently unpopular with some rangers because of worries that visitors will go hiking on a hot day without water.

"Many people are afraid for their jobs if they protest this decision," the source who has close ties to the park service said. "Many of us do not support this and are concerned for the visitors' safety."

Henderson said safety issues are still under review but he downplayed the concern. "We went for a good number of years without vending machines," Henderson said. "We didn't have visitors falling over from lack of water. So it's a learned habit and we're hoping we can unlearn it."

Park managers are installing a new water refill station at the Arches visitors center. It will be supplied by a local well that's notable for poor-tasting water. The park service addressed that concern by installing a new filtration system.

Henderson denies reports that the water system has failed on several occasions, but the anonymous source disputes that. "They did run out of water," the source said. "And they ran out last year on multiple occasions. And I don't know if they corrected that for this year, but that's a real concern."

A different internal feud erupted when a disposable bottle ban was proposed at Grand Canyon National Park. Park service director Jon Jarvis put the ban on hold after consulting with Coca-Cola. The company markets bottled water under the Dasani brand but is also a major park supporter and contributor to the National Park Foundation.    

A new policy unveiled in recent weeks allows individual park managers to propose such bans after collecting data and consulting with the national office.

E-mail: hollenhorst@desnews.com