Who calls the shots on the Colorado River?

RBC | 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 Conservation Water 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, over 60 Colorado River philanthropic organizations received between $5,000 and $2.9 million each, with seven organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), 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.

Then, there’s the Walton Foundation funding 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’s agenda. 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 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 statewide news organization that has received $100,000 annually for six years from the Walton Foundation. Public radio station KUNC has received three years of similar funding for its “water desk.”

In May 2020, the two nonprofits collaborated in a story exploring the investment group Water Asset Management (WAM), speculating that it sought to “buy and dry” agricultural water, leaving behind barren dust bowls. What was not reported, that only municipalities can “buy and dry” under Colorado’s already tough water anti-speculation laws. The big omission was that a Walton-funded nonprofit, the Nature Conservancy – had an ongoing demand management study – exactly where 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 each receiving $100,000 apiece for several years: “That sounds like a big Colorado water story in itself,” he said. “You might also worry about 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 on 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.

Even odder, the recent New York Times article on water speculation in the Colorado River Basin 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?”

Primary source for overall theme of Walton’s pushing to pay irrigators to sell low-value ag water to cities is in this white paper they funded called Liquid Assets. The thrust is simple, eliminating low-value ag like alfalfa, with improved efficiency, frees water for development.


1st paragraph. https://8ce82b94a8c4fdc3ea6d-b1d233e3bc3cb10858bea65ff05e18f2.ssl.cf2.rackcdn.com/cb/b7/d8c2a59b485fb405abee459d7f12/wff-2018-990-pf.pdf

Walton Family 990pf – how much they have to give, last filing 2018.
2nd paragraph. https://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org/grants-database

Annual donations $25 million. Walton Family Foundation grant list
3rd paragraph.

Off the record interview with a Colorado official (who feared retribution and wanted anonymity) who recounted how Ted Kowalski tried to get the Walton Family Foundation to enter the System Conservation Pilot Program alongside: Metropolitan Water District of California, Denver Water, CAP and Southern Nevada Water. Kowalski was told Walton Foundation could enter only by funding or working with a water district. His claims were verified by a 2017 donation to $400,000 to Denver Water from WFF

4th paragraph. Interview with Becky Mitchell about the November move into second stage of studying Demand management – ergo, how to implement. Off the record statement from CWCB official that upper basin states follow Colorado, since Colorado has lion’s share of system water in Colorado

5th paragraph. WFF grants database https://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org/grants-database

6th paragraph. Walton Family Foundation grants database, link above. Embedded Citation for demand management program that Nature Conservancy carried out on canal where Water Asset Management purchased land. Interview of TNC official, Aaron Derwingson.

7th paragraph. https://www.usbr.gov/lc/region/programs/PilotSysConsProg/pilotsystem.html#:~:text=The%20Pilot%20Program%20is%20testing,term%20drought%20on%20the%20Colorado

8th paragraph. Aspen Journalism website (20 demand management stories in 2020) and Politico story (Dec. 4th about Alternative Transfer Methods (ATM) – which Walton’s funded via direct donations along with the CWCB and TU – verified by phone interview with TU staffer, Mely Whiting) with embedded link below where story is mentioned. Aspen Journalism did same story here is reprint link to Aspen Times (note private donors in story below—that is Walton’s donation according to Whiting) ATM is another demand management type program to pay farmers to fallow fields. https://www.aspentimes.com/news/local/how-a-high-elevation-irrigation-study-in-kremmling-could-help-colorado-avoid-future-water-shortages/

10th. Paragraph. Interview with Dan Beard former Bureau of Reclamation head via phone early December. Quote confirmed

12th paragraph. Two phone interviews with Brent Gardner-Smith and one phone interview with Luke Runyon and subsequent email where he confirmed how many stories they were required to write and how much KUNC received from Walton Family Foundation annually, including 2021.

13th paragraph. WAM story link. https://www.aspenjournalism.org/western-colorado-water-purchases-stir-up-worries-about-the-future-of-farming/

14th paragraph. Can water be separated from land on BuRec funded irrigation canals? Background interview with river restoration expert and TU staffer, who wants to remain anonymous since TU’s budget depends on WFF donations.

15th paragraph. Email and phone interview with Corey Hutchins who confirmed his quote via email.

16th paragraph. Politico story. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/12/04/rancher-colorado-river-climate-west-water-crisis-341705

And the proof the $200,000 grant:
Walton Family Foundation grant database https://www.waltonfamilyfoundation.org/grants-database

17th paragraph. NY Times article … https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/03/business/colorado-river-water-rights.html

18th paragraph. Joel Dyer interview and confirmed quote via email.

Dave Marston is the publisher of Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West.