“We Realize This Is Just a Beginning” – Church leader speaks about historic water donations for the Great Salt Lake

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints this week made a historic donation of 200,000 acre-feet to the Great Salt Lake — a water supply the lake can officially call its own forever. And a senior church authority says more action is underway to be part of the solution to Utah’s immense water problems.

The Great Salt Lake, the West’s largest salt system, has hit record lows for two straight years. Its multi-million dollar industries are struggling to remain viable and its ecosystem is showing signs of collapse. Toxic seabed dust is already blowing into the urban communities of millions who live near its shores.

The lake has experienced a water inflow shortage of about 1.2 million acre-feet in recent years. Against this background, Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor of the Presiding Diocese of the Church, acknowledged that the gift is only a “small part” of what the Great Salt Lake needs.

“We recognize that this is just a start,” Waddell said, speaking to a panel of lake scientists, water advocates, lawmakers, policymakers and maritime advocates at a symposium on the “Future of the Great Salt Lake” held Friday at the University of Utah was hosted.

Still, Waddell said he hopes it will encourage more water donations and leases to bring the lake back from the brink.

(Photo by Francisco Kjolseth) A gray heron stands guard alongside other waterfowl in Farmington Bay on Tuesday, February 7, 2023.

“We are also conducting an assessment to identify other church water resources that may potentially be delivered to the Great Salt Lake,” Waddell said, “[as] a continuation of our efforts that began in 2021.”

The Salt Lake City-based faith has a variety of land holdings in Utah and across the United States, including hundreds of acres in the Great Salt Lake Basin. A previous review by The Salt Lake Tribune found that the church owns at least 75,000 acres worth of water rights in the Utah watersheds upstream of the lake.

“As a first priority,” Waddell said, “we are evaluating the water supplies in the five counties surrounding the Great Salt Lake as well as the water supplies delivered from Utah Lake, all of which we believe have the highest probability of successful delivery to the lake.”

The Church’s donation of 200,000 acre-feet, while small in relation to the lake’s needs, is still significant. Utah legislators have been working to revise the state’s outdated laws to allow water to be used to benefit environmental resources, including the Great Salt Lake.

Last year the Legislature created a $40 million Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust designed to buy or lease water rights from willing sellers. The Church’s gift marks the first success of this program, and it is the first time the Great Salt Lake has laid claim to its own waters.

“We are grateful that this effort, in partnership with the state, is making it possible to save this water forever,” Waddell said. “That was an essential aspect of this donation, to ensure that it will continue and that it will not be used for other things in the future.”

And with booming growth on the Wasatch Front in Utah and beyond, the water supply is incredibly valuable. Its location within a canal company near the lake shore also ensures it is not siphoned off by other downstream users.

“We want the things that will actually change the Great Salt Lake,” Waddell said. “We know that every little helps, and we invite other water facility owners to consider the new opportunities presented by recent legislative changes and determine how they can help with this important task.”

Measurable changes in church water usage

Church leaders aren’t just looking at water rights to address the region’s shortage.

Last year the church established a sustainability office and sustainability governance committee, Waddell said. It serves under the direction of the Presiding Bishopric, which oversees the faith’s vast financial, real estate, investment, and charitable activities.

They’re busy renovating church lands, improving irrigation, installing smart controls and sensors, and replacing lawns with aquatic vegetation. Part of the effort includes converting Church meetinghouse lots with expansive lawns to 35% peat.

As a result of those efforts, Salt Lake County meetinghouses reduced their water use by 35% in 2022 compared to 2020, Waddell said.

“We recognize that our efforts have not been perfect,” Waddell said. “And we invite church and parishioners to reach out to local church leadership if they observe instances where best practices are not actually being practiced.”

A drawing of a proposed Vineyard meetinghouse shows almost no grass at all—just islands of mulch, native plants, and trees.

(Image courtesy The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Native and drought-adapted plants and trees dominate a design for a future Vineyard meetinghouse.

Waddell also presented plans for the centerpiece of the church in Temple Square in downtown Salt Lake City.

Lawn is shortened by 35%. The number of trees is increased by 30% to mitigate the urban heat island effect. Many annual plants are being replaced by less water-intensive perennials, and there are plans to reduce watering by up to 40% in the summer.

Waddell estimates that the changes will reduce the property’s water use by approximately 20 million gallons per year, or approximately 61 acre-feet.

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Showing future plans for Temple Square. More perennials, less grass and 30% more trees will grow on the new site. Lawn grass is reduced by 35% and annuals by 50%. All lawn grasses receive 35-40% less water from June to September.

The Church’s cultural ties to the Great Salt Lake

Waddell also discussed the importance of the Great Salt Lake in church history. The lake was one of the first things Mormon pioneers saw and commented upon entering the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. They quickly set about digging canals and diversions to grow food and cities.

The then prophet and Church leader, Brigham Young, “advocated water as a public resource rather than privately owned,” Waddell said, “which by the standards of mid-nineteenth-century America was a radical notion.”

A few decades later, the Church formed the Inland Crystal Salt Company, which extracted salt minerals from the lake’s brine and sold them throughout the West. The church also built the Great Saltair, which quickly became a tourist magnet for those curious about Utah’s inland sea.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Christopher Merritt, a state preservationist, holds a copy of a photograph above showing what visitors to Saltair saw on Thursday, July, from where Merritt near the Former location of the resort stands 21st, 2022.

(Utah State Historical Society) Bathers of the Great Salt Lake in Saltair pose for a photograph during celebrations of Utah’s centenary, July 24, 1947.

After the Civil War, however, green lawns became a fashionable symbol of prosperity for the country’s middle class. In the late 1930s, Waddell said, as part of its welfare program, the church formed an “Improvement and Beautification Committee” that produced landscaping recommendations for church properties and its members.

“In response to these larger trends, the Improvement and Beautification Committee encouraged the planting of lawns around the church chapels,” Waddell said. “Church leaders approved of this practice, in part because they wanted the chapel grounds to look clean and beautiful in preparation for the centenary of the pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley in 1947.”

The hunger for lush lawns in arid Utah lasted for almost a century and demonstrated the Church’s immense cultural influence. But as the Great Salt Lake shrinks, aquifers dry up, and tensions rise between states that share the Colorado River, attitudes are beginning to change.

“Our ability to be wise stewards of the earth depends on our understanding of the natural resources we have been blessed with,” Waddell said. “As our understanding of the environment increases, so does our ability to align our practices with the environmental realities we face.”

https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2023/03/17/we-realize-this-is-just-start/ “We Realize This Is Just a Beginning” – Church leader speaks about historic water donations for the Great Salt Lake

Justin Scacco

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