Frequently asked questions

Here are answers to some questions about our work to strengthen water-related journalism.

Moose in water photo
A moose in a pond near Crested Butte, Colorado. Photo by Mitch Tobin.

What is The Water Desk?

The Water Desk is an editorially independent initiative dedicated to increasing the volume, depth and power of journalism connected to Western water issues. The Water Desk is based at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) and its Center for Environmental Journalism (CEJ), which is part of the College of Media, Communication and Information.

The Water Desk works with journalists and media outlets to strengthen their water-related coverage and expand its reach. We also produce our own content, help train the next generation of water journalists, engage with the community and pursue innovative approaches to storytelling.

What is the Center for Environmental Journalism?

The CEJ was established in 1992 by the Journalism and Mass Communication program at CU Boulder to enrich public understanding of environmental issues by elevating the quality, range and depth of coverage by journalists. The CEJ does this by helping seasoned and emerging journalists enhance their knowledge of the scientific, economic, political and social aspects of these issues.

The CEJ focuses on the professional development of working journalists, student education and research on media, environment and society. To that end, the Scripps Fellowships serve as a linchpin, bringing working journalists to campus for a full academic year. For students, the CEJ offers a master’s degree with an emphasis in environmental journalism as well as a doctoral community for students interested in researching media and the environment, media and scientific communication, risk communication and corollary fields.

What are The Water Desk’s priorities?

The Water Desk strengthens water journalism in a variety of ways:

  • Support for journalists: Through our network, The Water Desk provides funding, training and other resources to journalists and media outlets that cover Western water issues.
  • Original content: The Water Desk produces its own journalism and offers free multimedia content, data visualizations and background resources.
  • Education and community engagement: The Water Desk works with CU students and others beyond the campus to advance learning and to engage the community on Western water issues.

Who funds The Water Desk?

The Water Desk launched in April 2019 with support from a two-year, $700,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation.

In 2021, we received a new, two-year $600,000 grant from the foundation, and in 2023, we received a new, two-year $900,000 grant from the foundation.

A $150,000 grant from the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation supported our work in 2020. We also received a $10,000 gift from Bill and Barbara Burgess in 2020 and a $5,000 gift in 2021. In 2021, we received a $50,000 grant from the Thornburg Foundation, and in 2022, we received a $50,000 matching grant from the Water Funder Initiative to support our work in New Mexico and the Rio Grande Basin. In 2022, this project also received an additional $25,000 grant from the Thornburg Foundation and a $25,000 grant from the Santa Fe Community Foundation. In 2024, we were awarded a $50,000 grant from the Thornburg Foundation to support our New Mexico and Rio Grande program.

We have also received smaller individual donations from individuals as well as matching funds from NewsMatch.

How does The Water Desk maintain its journalistic independence?  

The Water Desk is an editorially independent journalism initiative. Funders of The Water Desk cannot specify how The Water Desk and its partners cover a story, nor can they influence the outcome of that reporting. This editorial firewall erects a barrier between The Water Desk’s financial supporters and the initiative’s journalism. The Water Desk is transparent about what entities are supporting the initiative and discloses any potential conflicts of interest. See our funding page to learn more about our supporters and our editorial independence. 

What codes of conduct guide The Water Desk?

The Water Desk is a journalism initiative that abides by the norms outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. SPJ’s code is based on the following principles:

  • Seek truth and report it: Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
  • Minimize harm: Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
  • Act independently: The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
  • Be accountable and transparent: Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.

As a member of the CU Boulder community, The Water Desk also abides by the university’s rules, regulations, ethical standards and Code of Conduct. The following summary is excerpted from the university’s Ethics and Compliance Plan:

At the University of Colorado Boulder, our vision is to be a leader in addressing the humanitarian, social and technological challenges of the twenty-first century. Underpinning this vision is our commitment to the highest ethical standards in all that we do. Inspired by our students’ Colorado Creed, we commit to act with integrity, courage, and respect. These values are reinforced by our Inclusive Excellence Initiative and our identity is defined by respect for diversity and inclusivity.  To that end, we restate our values as follows:

  • Integrity/Accountability: we are all responsible for our conduct, relationships, and interactions with colleagues, students and the broader university community in creating a climate of inclusive excellence.
  • Collaboration: foster partnerships across the campus community, value diverse perspectives, interdisciplinary/transdisciplinary work, work with all campus constituents to remove barriers and solve problems.
  • Innovative Thinking and Continuous Improvement: adapting to change, continuous learning, critical thinking, promoting growth of the individual and the organization.
  • Engage in Effective Communication: open dialogue, listening and communication, being respectful of each other’s unique backgrounds and perspectives. Ensure that key and critical information is shared within the unit and provide timely information across the campus community.  

The Water Desk shares the University of Colorado Boulder’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and community engagement. The University of Colorado Boulder exemplifies excellence through diversity by:

  • Creating a welcoming and inclusive environment
  • Maximizing the success and inclusion of all students, staff and faculty
  • Engaging with diverse perspectives through a growth mindset

Are you seeking additional funders?

Yes. The Water Desk is seeking additional support from philanthropy and other sources so that we can build and sustain the initiative. All funders of The Water Desk will be required to abide by the editorial firewall and support journalistic independence, as described above. If you are interested in supporting The Water Desk, please contact co-director Mitch Tobin at

What’s your geographic scope?

The Water Desk focuses on Western water issues. Initially, we worked solely on the Colorado River Basin, but in 2022, we expanded to include water issues in the Rio Grande Basin and New Mexico. 

What types of water issues do you focus on?

Because water is intertwined with so many issues, The Water Desk is interested in journalism covering a broad spectrum of topics: climate change, biodiversity, public health, environmental justice, food, agriculture, drinking water, economics, business, recreation and more.

Do you still offer grants?

The Water Desk is not currently offering grants for journalists. See this page for a list of prior grantees and this page for their published projects.

How does your network for media outlets work?

The Water Desk is home to a collaborative network of media outlets that work together and cross-publish content related to Western water issues. Members are encouraged to share stories, promote one another’s work and collaborate on projects. There is no cost to join the network.

The Water Desk manages the network, facilitates sharing of content, creates original journalism for the network and publishes material from network members on this website. We’re also able to provide funding to support stories produced for the network’s partners. The Water Desk’s Co-director Luke Runyon serves as the network’s managing editor. 

If your media outlet is interested in joining the network, please contact Luke at

How do you work with students?

The Water Desk works with undergraduate and graduate students at CU Boulder, helping train and mentor the next generation of water journalists. CU Boulder students have served as interns, helping us produce original content, managing social media and serving on review committees in our prior grantmaking program. Staff from The Water Desk have offered guest lectures to a variety of journalism classes at the university and have worked with students interested in pursuing water-related stories. Students or instructors interested in The Water Desk can direct their questions to 

How can I stay in touch with The Water Desk?

Please sign up for our email newsletter on this page.

We’re also on X and Instagram, so please connect with us on those networks.

What if my question isn’t answered here?

Please contact us at