A Big Pot of Award Money for Tackling a Global Menace to Fresh Water

Among the latest high-dollar philanthropic competitions is a $10 million prize to tackle the global problem of excess phosphorous in fresh water, with a series of smaller awards along the way.

The ecosystem of grassy marshes and tree islands in the Florida Everglades formed in large part because of the area’s very low levels of nutrients. So even though the Everglades are protected as a national park, runoff carrying phosphorous from sources like agricultural fertilizer wreaks havoc on the region’s natural habitat.

So it makes sense that a prize focused entirely on fighting the scourge of phosphorous pollution in fresh water bloomed out of efforts to protect the Everglades. The George Barley Water Prize, launching this summer, is a $10 million grand challenge-style competition inviting participants to come up with new ways to remove excess phosphorous from freshwater bodies. 

Its main sponsor is the Everglades Foundation, which draws funds from individual donors and foundations, and the competition recently picked up backing from philanthropic challenge leaders the Knight Foundation

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Excess phosphorous is particularly problematic in places like the Everglades and Lake Okeechobee, but it’s a massive issue all over the globe, from the Midwest and its Great Lakes to rural villages in China. According the EPA, 40 percent of the nation’s rivers and streams have high levels of phosphorus, which hurts water quality—algae blooms perennially threaten drinking water in places like Toledo, Ohio—alters habitats, and makes waters uninhabitable for aquatic life.

There are ways to extract phosphorous from water, such as building artificial wetlands, but they tend to be expensive and require large plots of land.

It’s a problem that many funders have been working on from a variety of angles, including regional foundations like the William Penn Foundation, and city funders working to prevent stormwater runoff from fouling up water supplies. 

The Barley Prize is a new addition, taking some of the competitive and inclusive spirit of contests like the Knight Challenges or Wendy Schmidt’s Ocean Health XPRIZE, and applying it to freshwater cleanup. 


The Everglades Foundation started in 1993; it had a budget of $7.6 million in revenue and support in 2014 from a mix of foundations, trusts, and donors. Supporters include funders like the Batchelor Foundation, large donors like finance billionaire Paul Tudor Jones II, and companies like Lacoste. It has an annual grantmaking program, but this looks to be a pretty big step up from past projects. Knight has chipped in, and the Ontario Ministry of the Environment is a partner. 

There are a couple of elements involved in the challenge, facilitated by online competition company Verb, Inc., that we tend to like to see in these philanthropic prizes. 

For one, it’s got a big and public lead up to the main prize, featuring plenty of support and proof of concept work. The final award is slated for 2020, with a few stages along the way that include smaller doses of funding.

The winner will receive the $10 million prize for developing new technologies that remove and recover excess phosphorous from bodies of water. But smaller awards of up to $200,000 will have a broader scope and go toward different components of the problem.

If you’re curious about what kinds of contestants are stepping up, you can already see some of the early ideas being floated, with 49 in the fray so far