Water stories from the Walton Family Foundation

Mono Lake
FlickrSheila Sund
Mono Lake at the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains has been greatly depleted due to California's drought.

Growing up, I had the privilege of spending time on my grandmother’s dairy farm. It was only later that I recognized how that time playing in the fields, wandering along the streams, helping with chores and listening to discussions at the kitchen table shaped the way I think about water. I’d hear my family talk about how blasting for the highway disrupted the farm’s water supply and how new regulations to reduce water pollution would change the way manure was spread. 

Water loomed large for my grandfather as well. He owned a store on Front Street next to the Connecticut River in Hartford. After dealing with devastating floods, the city built levees and relocated businesses, including my grandfather’s, out of the flood plain.

We each have our own water story, and it invariably connects not only our personal well-being, but also our economic livelihoods and the natural world. The United Nations has declared today World Water Day under the banner “Better water, better jobs,” a pillar of the guiding philosophy behind our environmental work at the Walton Family Foundation.

Last year, the World Economic Forum rated "water crises" as the No. 1 global threat  ahead of infectious diseases, weapons of mass destruction, interstate conflict and even climate change. Despite topping this list of threats, water does not receive the attention it deserves. Only when crisis strikes  floods on the Mississippi River, drought in the West or contaminated drinking water in Flint, Michigan — do we pay attention.

For too long we have ignored water issues as a problem for other parts of the world. 

The idea that smart solutions to our water crisis can protect the environment, safeguard the future of local communities and provide economic opportunity deserves the attention of every responsible business leader. All of us, from ranchers and farmers to fishermen and store owners like my grandparents, as well as families in cities across the county, all have something to lose  and to gain  when it comes to having safe, plentiful water and healthy rivers and oceans.

As I look at the water issues we face today, I see four areas in which crisis and opportunity are as close as river and riverbank. And in each area, innovation and new approaches give me reason for hope:

1. Balancing supply and demand

In the Colorado River basin, water management policies built for a different time allow more water to be taken out than is sustainable.

This not only harms farmers, ranchers, wildlife and the more than 33 million people who rely on the river for their water supply, but also jeopardizes the basin’s $26 billion recreation economy. That's why we supported the water sharing agreement developed by the Colorado Water Trust that uses market-based water management incentives to keep the Little Cimarron River  a prized trout stream  flowing all year and still maintaining agricultural production.                       

2. Improving water quality and farm efficiency

In the Mississippi River basin, excess nitrogen and phosphorus in agricultural runoff threatens drinking water, fisheries and other industries dependent on clean water. In northern Iowa, farmers have set a goal to reduce nutrient runoff in the Rock Creek watershed by 45 percent over the next 20 years, which will minimize the need for expensive fertilizer and keep pollutants out of the Cedar River, which feeds into the basin. That means lower costs, more productive farms and better water quality for everyone else all the way to the mouth of the Mississippi River.

3. Strengthening coastal communities and economies

Downstream in the Mississippi River Delta and across the U.S. Gulf Coast, we’re supporting communities facing threats of shoreline erosion and sea level rise. Louisiana alone loses more than a football field worth of wetlands per hour. These wetlands aren’t just important for commercial anglers and oystermen, but also serve as the sponge that absorbs storm surges, protecting economic hubs such as New Orleans from hurricanes.

We’re helping ensure the settlement funds from the 2010 Gulf oil spill are directed to the best restoration projects, creating a model of how we can protect coastal communities into the future.

4. Using markets to drive seafood sustainability

It’s no secret that many fisheries around the globe are rapidly depleting or collapsing. However, along the Pacific coasts of Mexico, South America and Indonesia, we’re working to reduce overfishing by using smart economic incentives.

The curvina golfina fishermen of northwestern Mexico are proof that stable economies and stable ecosystems go hand in hand. We’re also working with seafood producers to show that there is a strong international demand for sustainable fish. These companies understand that doing the right thing for our oceans is the right thing for their balance sheets. 

These stories, just like those I encountered growing up, demonstrate why all of us, including farmers, ranchers, fishermen, environmentalists and business leaders, need to see the risks  and opportunities  that these water challenges create. Together, we can help ensure that future generations have safe and plentiful water, that our rivers are healthy, our supplies of freshwater are adequate and clean, that coastal communities are economically and environmentally secure, and that our oceans and coasts are healthy enough to sustain fish and fishermen.