LDS Church continuously donates thousands of acres of water to the Great Salt Lake

The gift took months to prepare and represents the first major private sector commitment to save the endangered lake.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The angel Moroni atop the Bountiful Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, December 10, 2022, with the shrinking Great Salt Lake in the background.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, one of the wealthiest and most influential institutions in Utah, plans to donate a pool of water to help save the Great Salt Lake.

The Utah Department of Natural Resources, which helps manage the lake, announced the gift Wednesday morning. The donation represents approximately 20,000 acre-feet worth of shares held by the Church in North Point Consolidated Irrigation Co. An acre foot is enough water to power about two Utah homes, depending on how productively they irrigate outdoors.

[Related: How the LDS Church could prevent its headquarters from becoming a toxic wasteland]

“We are grateful to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for this generous donation,” Gov. Spencer Cox said in a press release. “This water donation will make a real difference to the lake and the future of our state.”

The governor has been in talks with the church about water for the lake since at least July. The Great Salt Lake is on the brink of collapse after two record lows.

Despite being the country’s largest salt system, the lake has suffered a water deficit of about 1.2 million acre-feet in recent years. However, this winter’s significant snowpack will likely add elevation by at least a few feet. It is currently at about 4,190 feet above sea level but needs to rise to about 4,200 feet to reach an elevation that is sustainable for wildlife, recreation, and lake-based industries such as artemia and mineral harvesting.

“The Great Salt Lake is a critical asset ecologically, ecologically and economically,” said Cox, “and we must all work together to protect and conserve it.”

The water donation is managed through the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, established by the Utah legislature last year.

“The Great Salt Lake and the ecosystem that depends on it are so important,” said Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, the church’s first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, which oversees the faith’s extensive financial, real estate, investment, and charitable activities. “The church wants to be part of the solution because we all have a responsibility to care for and use well the natural resources that God has given us. We invite others to join us to help.”

Waddell is the keynote speaker Friday at the Wallace Stegner Center for Land, Resources and the Environment’s symposium “The Future of the Great Salt Lake.”

An analysis by the Salt Lake Tribune last month found that the Church owns at least 75,000 acres in the Great Salt Lake watershed. This does not include stakes in canal companies, which are more difficult to identify as they are private companies.

Many, if not most, water rights in Utah are held jointly by irrigation companies. Pioneers and farmers founded them, pooling their resources to dig canals so they could grow crops and build cities in arid Utah.

North Point Consolidated Irrigation Co. owns water rights dating back to 1862 and 1915 derived from the Jordan River. Legacy water rights are especially helpful for the Great Salt Lake, as they are given higher priority during times of drought.

The church’s gift will also preserve important coastal and wetland areas in Farmington Bay, according to the DNR.

“This donation is invaluable as it provides a permanent source of water that benefits the lake year after year,” said Joel Ferry, executive director of the department, in the press release. “I appreciate the collaboration between the Church, DNR and conservation groups.”

Marcelle Shoop, director of the National Audubon Society’s Saline Lakes program and executive director of the Great Salt Lake Trust, also expressed her appreciation for the donation.

Utah lawmakers have worked in recent years to revise the state’s archaic water laws. These changes allow irrigation companies to impound water or lease it to the state for the benefit of the environment, including the Great Salt Lake.

Farmers throughout the catchment area have so far refused to participate in the lease.

Religious scholars, environmentalists and scientists have highlighted the cultural impact the church has in Utah and the vital role it could play in rallying residents to help keep the lake from becoming a toxic shell of dust.

The lake contributes $1.9 billion to Utah’s economy and supports the vast majority of the state’s wetlands. It is a critical staging point for millions of migratory birds each year, increasingly losing their habitat as salt lakes dry up in the west and around the world.

This article is published by The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations dedicated to educating readers about the Great Salt Lake. LDS Church continuously donates thousands of acres of water to the Great Salt Lake

Justin Scaccy

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