If there’s a dominant force in the Colorado River Basin these days, it’s the Walton Family Foundation, flush with close to $5 billion to give away.
Run by the heirs of Walmart founder Sam Walton, the foundation donates $25 million a year to nonprofits concerned about the Colorado River. It’s clear the foundation cares deeply about the river in this time of excruciating drought, and some of its money goes to river restoration or more efficient irrigation.
Yet its main interest is promoting “demand management,” the water marketing scheme that seeks to add 500,000 acre-feet of water to declining Lake Powell by paying rural farmers to temporarily stop irrigating.
In November 2020, that focused involvement paid off. The Colorado Water Conservation Board boosted demand management into a “step two work plan,” moving the concept closer toward policy in the state, which leads the Upper Basin states of New Mexico, Wyoming and Utah in drought-management planning.
But is this approach, which verges on turning water into a commodity, good for the Colorado River? And was the public debate sufficient for policy about a water source that’s vital to 40 million people?
Without doubt, the foundation has supported the region’s nonprofits. During the last four years, more than 60 Colorado River philanthropic organizations received between $5,000 and $2.9 million each, with seven organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund, The Nature Conservancy and Western Resource Advocates each receiving $1 million or more in 2019 alone. A good share of the Walton Foundation’s $25 million in annual donations also went toward testing demand management on numerous creeks and tributaries in the Upper Basin states of Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming.
The Walton Foundation also paid EDF millions to carry out crucial aspects of a $29 million pilot program for demand management in the Lower Basin states of Nevada, California and Arizona.
The Walton Foundation also funds media to do stories about the Colorado River.
What’s troubling is that some of the stories produced omit the Walton Foundation’s role in advocating for demand management.
Because the foundation’s reach is so extensive, few of its critics are willing to speak publicly. They charge that the Walton Family Foundation doesn’t just have a seat at the table; it sets the table. Lately, though, some “water buffaloes” seem skittish about a policy that leads to water speculation, which raises the question: Are the critics of demand management gaining traction?
Dan Beard, former chief of the Bureau of Reclamation under President Bill Clinton, hopes so.
“They (Walton Family Foundation) think they’ve found the solution,” he said. “The way they’ve done that is to get all the nonprofits on their side. I think that’s a horrible result, especially for the environmental community. We need to sow the seeds of intellectual curiosity. If you’ve come to a conclusion and you don’t deviate from that, you’re nothing more than an intellectual dictator.”
Then there’s the impact of Walton Foundation money on media nonprofits.
Brent Gardner-Smith runs Aspen Journalism, a nonprofit news organization that has received $100,000 annually for three years from the Walton Family Foundation and $100,000 annually for three years from the Catena Foundation, a foundation run by Sam R. Walton (the third “Sam Walton,” he is grandson of the Walmart founder). Public radio station KUNC, a station serving northern Colorado, has received three years of similar funding from the WFF for its “water desk.”
In May 2020, the two nonprofits collaborated in a story exploring the investment group Water Asset Management. While not specifically using the phrase “buy and dry,” the story caused anxiety about water speculators coming into Mesa County.
The story did not point out that a Walton-funded nonprofit, the Nature Conservancy, had an ongoing demand management study – exactly where and when WAM was buying land.
Colorado College journalism instructor Corey Hutchins said he was surprised to hear the size of some of the funding KUNC and Aspen Journalism received.
“That sounds like a big Colorado water story in itself,” he said. “You might also worry about (the risk of media outlets’) self-censorship.”
A story by Politico, a for-profit news conglomerate, is illustrative. In 2018, Politico received a $200,000 grant from the Walton Foundation for special projects. In December, Politico ran a feature about the drought-stricken Colorado River that quoted the Walton Foundation’s head of Colorado River philanthropy, Ted Kowalski. Yet the foundation’s involvement in river policy wasn’t mentioned, nor was Politico’s previous funding from the Walton Foundation noted.
A recent New York Times article about water speculation in the Colorado River Basin also omitted the Walton influence.
Joel Dyer, former editor for Boulder Weekly, who wrote a critical Walton piece, sees the issue of transparency this way: “They’ve (the Walton Family Foundation) spread their money so much they’ve diluted anyone who could push back. The big stories, the big ideas, who’s going to look into that?”
Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.