The first-ever official shortage on the Colorado River has intensified debate over how to provide water to 40 million people in the southwest and irrigate fields of thirsty crops like wheat, cotton and alfalfa. .
Few voices outside government are more influential than that of the billionaire Walmart heiress Walton family Inc.
Fortune, who have long advocated water markets as a key element in solving the region’s problems. But some environmental groups say the Waltons are stifling other non-market approaches.
Wall Street Journal analysis shows that a Walton-controlled charity, the Walton Family Foundation, has donated around $ 200 million over the past decade to various advocacy groups, universities and media involved in the river. . No other donor comes close. Two federal officials formerly affiliated with the foundation have been appointed to key positions in the Biden administration overseeing the river.
Giving a monetary value to water has raised concerns among those with guaranteed access to water and those who believe that markets benefit investors while harming farmers and the poor. Water markets in Australia have been accused of helping to dry up waterways due to over-exploitation by a handful of wealthy farmers and investors.
âWhenever water starts to become more valuable than land, you end up with the possibility of outside speculators,â said Andrew Mueller, chief executive of Colorado River District, a public planning and policy agency that oversees the use of water in western Colorado. . Mueller said his state has seen continued interest in water and farmland from outside investment groups.
The Walton Foundation has argued for years that water markets are among the best ways to distribute and conserve the water that flows along the 1,450 mile river. A number of environmental groups that take Walton’s money are major water market boosters.
The Nature Conservancy, a conservation-oriented public charity that received funding from the Waltons, said in a 2016 report that such markets can “ensure a steady flow of water to depleted ecosystems and sell the rest back to irrigators or to towns â. An added benefit, he said, is “material return for investors.”
“We need all of the tools in the toolkit, including Guided Water Markets, to increase water security and protect the things we all care about,” a spokesperson said. from Nature Conservancy.
Over the past decade, the foundation has accounted for much of the institutional funding for Colorado River activism in major environmental charities such as the National Audubon Society, the Environmental Defense Fund and American Rivers, according to the Foundation. data from the foundation and charities.
The Waltons also donated money to foundations run by the University of Colorado and the University of Arizona, among other universities. This year, he helped fund a reporting team to cover water issues at The Associated Press. The AP said they have worked with other nonprofits besides the Walton Family Foundation and retain editorial control in all cases.
A spokeswoman for the University of Colorado said donations do not influence the outcome of her research. A spokeswoman for the University of Arizona said that although she has received funding from other groups for her Colorado River program over the past four years, the biggest source has been the Walton Foundation.
Money run by the Walton Foundation has often been used to defend markets where water is bought and sold as a commodity. Donors say markets can value and allocate water more efficiently, especially as climate change threatens to reduce supply. In the West, they say long-standing policies that encourage farmers to use all of their water or give it up, known as âuse it or lose itâ, have led to widespread wastage.
The river is now facing one of its greatest crises. The Bureau of Reclamation declared the first-ever water shortage on the Colorado River in August, sparking cuts in several states. The office made the statement after predicting that Nevada’s Lake Mead, which stores the river’s water, would remain below 1,075 feet above sea level at least early next year.
“Like much of the West, and across our connected basins, the Colorado River faces unprecedented and accelerating challenges,” said Tanya Trujillo, Home Office assistant secretary for water and science, in a statement during the statement.
Walton officials say they are focused on helping farmers conserve water while still growing crops. Moira Mcdonald, director of the foundation’s environmental program, said in an interview that she has started to move away from a focus on markets to keep water in rivers and improve the health of watersheds. The foundation also focused on issues such as forest restoration and sustainable fishing.
Potentially amplifying the influence of the Walton family, two officials once affiliated with his foundation have been appointed to positions in the Biden administration that wield considerable influence on the river. Ms Trujillo, who was sworn in to her current post in June, was a project manager for the Walton-funded Colorado River Sustainability Campaign, which is helping coordinate a series of river-related efforts among groups of conservation. His current position oversees the Bureau of Reclamation, the largest water wholesaler in the United States.
Ms Trujillo and the Interior Ministry declined to comment.
Michael Connor worked for a time as an environmental program officer for the Walton Foundation after serving as Home Office Assistant Secretary in the Obama administration. He was appointed Deputy Secretary of the Army Defense Department for Civil Works, a position that oversees the Army Corps of Engineers’ civil works programs, including some of its resource work. in United States water. The White House declined to comment. Mr. Connor did not respond to requests for comment.
““Whenever water starts to become more valuable than land, you end up with the possibility of outside speculators.”“
While at the Walton Foundation, Connor supported the expansion of so-called water banks, which he described as “a market-based approach to compensate water users for the temporary reduction in water costs. water diversions to avoid regional shortages â.
Waves of Walton’s money flowing to environmental groups and researchers have raised fears that the family has gained inordinate influence over political discussions surrounding the Colorado River Basin, especially talks about the markets of the water.
“Across the wide range of environmental voices, the voices heard are those who agree with market-based solutions,” a 2018 Oxford University thesis on Walton Foundation grants revealed. Oxford water resources researcher Dustin Garrick, who oversaw the study, said he accepted two grants from the Walton Foundation for water-related projects.
The deep pockets of the Walton Foundation have helped forge cooperation around the Colorado River, but also “widened the gap between those at the table and those who stay,” Garrick said.
About ten years ago, the Waltons began recruiting environmental charities they support to advocate for their causes. In the states and in Washington, DC, they have been pushing for policies that encourage “water commercialization and other projects that improve water efficiency” in the Colorado River Basin, according to a document. 2017 base reviewed by the Journal.
Walton Foundation officials regularly meet with charities and assign them detailed tasks related to their grants, according to foundation documents reviewed by the Journal.
Ms. Trujillo was a leading figure in the foundation’s efforts related to the Lower Colorado Basin, which includes Arizona, California and Nevada, according to people familiar with the case and documents reviewed by the Journal. A March 2017 document details the Walton Foundation’s goals, including achieving a âgrowing water marketâ in Arizona.
A former Walton Fund recipient says his money was cut short after he got out of the script. For about four years, a Walton-funded Denver charity gave $ 60,000 a year to Save the Colorado, a small group in Boulder, Colorado, focused on restoring river water.
Gary Wockner, founder of the group and now a scathing critic of the Waltons’ influence, says his funds were cut once he began to oppose policies backed by other recipients of family funds, such as plans for new dams.
“I was told ‘you are not aligned'” with the Walton Foundation, he said. A spokesperson for the Walton Foundation said Mr Wockner “tends to be both contentious and combative, which is not in the spirit of collaboration that we try to bring to this work.”
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