Which Controversial Family Foundation Is Spending a Fortune to Protect the Colorado River?

Since around 2005, the Walton Family Foundation has been pouring funds into environmental issues, with one of its main interests being the Colorado River. As part of the foundation’s freshwater conservation initiative, the funder gave nearly $16.6 million to the cause just last year. Here's where it went.

The Walton name doesn’t always inspire feelings of warmth among environmentalists, but for good or ill, the foundation of the world’s wealthiest family has come to have a tremendous influence on conservation, especially water issues. Within its freshwater initiative—one of two environmental subprograms along with marine conservation—Walton has made restoration of the Colorado River one of its top priorities. About 18 percent of the massive funder’s $93 million in environmental funding last year went to the Colorado River and its delta. 

The Colorado is a pressing issue for environmentalists, as population growth has overshot the flow of the river, threatening water supplies and wreaking havoc on its biologically diverse habitats. So what's the Walton game plan to help solve this problem? 

The first thing to note about all of Walton’s green giving is that it pursues solutions that it believes are good for the environment, but also the economy—not surprising, given the source. It’s a very people- and business-centric approach to environmentalism, often pursuing market-based solutions. As its five-year strategy for freshwater conservation states:

The Walton Family Foundation believes that conservation solutions that make economic sense are the ones that stand the test of time. The foundation works to achieve lasting change by creating new and unexpected partnerships among conservation, business and community interests to build durable solutions to big problems.

Margaret Bowman, head of the foundation’s environment program and the freshwater initiative, co-wrote a column “How not to kill the mighty Colorado River,” for the Arizona Republic in December, in which she made the case that efforts to save the river’s flow could be good for farmers and the recreation industry, touting solutions like remote-controlled irrigation and mandatory efficiency appliances in new homes. 

Specifically, the foundation gives to two main strategies—restoring the healthy flow of the Colorado River, and restoring riparian habitats by removing invasive and restoring native plants.

As far as the recent grantees, it’s a pretty long list. But some big checks made it to your typical conservation giants. One of the Waltons’ favorite groups is the Environmental Defense Fund (the close relationship has drawn harsh criticism, in fact), which received $1.8 million for Colorado River work in 2013. The Nature Conservancy and Trout Unlimited are other large grantees. About $3 million went to the New Venture Fund, a philanthropic intermediary that carries out giving for foundations. 

But they also give to a wide mix of local governments, universities, utilities and nonprofits such as the Colorado Environmental Coalition, Western Resource Advocates and the Colorado Water Trust. Groups operating in the Southwest should definitely keep Walton on the radar. Read more below:

Walton Family Foundation: Grants for Conservation

Walton Family Foundation: Grants for Marine & Rivers

What's the Walton Family Foundation Mean by 'Conservationomics'?

Walton 2013 Grants