Three Rivers Park patrons may have to change their drinking habits soon.

A proposal for ending the sale of pop and water in environmentally unfriendly plastic bottles in the district's 20 metro-area parks and reserves will be before commissioners in about a month.

The plan replaces plastic vessels with cans, cups, drinking fountains and re-usable water bottles, said John Barten, director of natural resources for the park district. "We want to be sure that people have access to the same liquids they had previously."

The park district sells about 35,000 plastic bottles of water a year. About 27,000 wind up in the trash; only about a quarter of them are recycled, Barten said.

Eliminating the bottles would eliminate that trash, save the energy tied up in producing and delivering the plastic containers, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by at least 7,000 pounds a year, "without negatively affecting the park district's ability to provide water to guests," Barten said.

Commissioner Mark Haggerty is skeptical of the idea. "I don't like government and I don't like being told what to do," he said. "I don't think we should stop selling plastic bottled water until we have an alternative."

Commissioner Dale Woodbeck supports the change. "I don't see this as us telling people what to drink and what not to drink." The focus, he said, is on the beverage container. "It's about the resources that are wasted" on plastic bottles of water, which the park district has in ample supply, he said.

The University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska discontinued bottled water sales in May 2009.

"We stopped selling the bottled water and we started selling our own arboretum reusable containers of water" that patrons could take home and re-use, said arboretum operations director Peter Moe.

The arboretum noted that it takes more than 300 years for plastic bottles to decompose in landfills. In 2006, production of water bottles for Americans required more than 17 million barrels of oil -- enough to fuel more than 1 million cars for a year.

Public response at the arboretum has been positive, Moe said.

In Ramsey County, pop and water are sold in plastic bottles as part of a vending contract that requires a strong recycling program, said Jody Yungers, director of park services and operations.

Three Rivers wants to preserve natural resources and reduce energy use to save money, Barten said. Turning off vending machine exterior lighting overnight has cut vending machine energy use in half, he said.

Water in the park district is supplied by municipal water systems and 60 wells. Those are the same sources of bottled water, Barten said. "When you are thirsty, if the water is cold, there is very little difference in taste that I can detect."

Commissioners are expected to vote on the change before hot, thirsty weather arrives.

Laurie Blake • 612-673-1711