Mormon Church works to save the Great Salt Lake with big water donation

Farmington Bay, a critical habitat for wildlife, feeds into the Great Salt Lake. Record-low water levels are jeopardizing the lake’s very existence. (James Roh for The Washington Post)

SALT LAKE CITY — The valley here was shades of brown, its vast saline lake shimmering, when Brigham Young first surveyed the landscape in 1847 and recognized a place he had seen in a vision: a spot to make the desert bloom, a promised land for the persecuted flock he led as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Today, the valley is the headquarters of a faith with 17 million adherents worldwide and a tableau of verdant lawns, fertile farmland and booming growth. Yet the transformation is threatened: Because of overuse of water and climate change, the Great Salt Lake is drying up — and the Mormon Church is taking on an unusually public role to help save it.

Last summer, the church began urging conservation and touted its water-saving efforts in the American West. At its fall general conference, which Mormons everywhere follow for speeches considered direction from God, a senior bishop stressed using Earth’s resources with restraint. This spring, another senior bishop delivered what was praised as a landmark address on Mormons’ history with water in the valley and outlined an unprecedented move: permanently donating a small reservoir’s worth of church-owned water, the largest such gift ever made for the lake.

The donation comes nowhere near solving the lake’s woes, which are imperiling key industries, putting wildlife at risk and clouding the air with poisonous dust. Experts say more aggressive legislation is critical. But the church is hugely influential in a conservative state where some 60 percent of residents, and an even larger portion of lawmakers, are Latter-day Saints. Its decision to wade into a subject infused with politicized tussles over climate change has boosted the sense of urgency and underscored the existential threat of the Great Salt Lake’s demise, observers say.

“The air we breathe, the water we drink and the very food we eat are all affected by Great Salt Lake,” said Timothy Hawkes, a church member and former Republican lawmaker who is now general counsel for the Great Salt Lake Brine Shrimp Cooperative, which harvests tiny crustacean eggs that are fed to farmed fish worldwide. “A lot of people are living here. But they wouldn’t if it was a toxic dust bowl.”

The public stance has been cheered by Mormon environmental advocates. They note that the church’s vast real estate portfolio in Utah includes ample water rights, as the Salt Lake Tribune has reported. Whether its guidance will sway the masses — and, crucially, farmers, whose agricultural land uses a large chunk of the water that could flow to the lake — remains to be seen.

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“It is a big deal that the church is talking about environmental issues, because in the past they haven’t,” said Marc Coles-Ritchie, a board member of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance. “They are starting to do things. They just need to do more.”

Church officials have departed from orthodoxy before; in the fall, they declared their support for federal legislation protecting same-sex marriage. On issue of the Great Salt Lake’s future, they say they recognize their leadership role and are assessing other possible water contributions to the lake, plus studying conservation measures through seven pilot projects statewide and working with researchers and the government on ways to assist.

The impetus, said Jenica Sedgwick, the church’s first sustainability manager, is doctrinal, not political.

“We need to care for the Earth … and we’re accountable to God for that,” Sedgwick said in an interview at a Mormon meetinghouse retrofitted with rock-centric landscaping to use less water. The lake crisis “is something that we need everybody paying attention to and thinking about.”

The Great Salt Lake is a terminal entity — three major rivers flow into it, but none out of it. Evaporation leaves behind minerals and water far saltier than the sea.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, as Mormon pioneers diverted mountain-fed streams and rivers to irrigate the valley, they also saw opportunity in the lake’s salinity, Bishop W. Christopher Waddell told a conference in March. The church started a company that sold salt from the lake and founded a popular beach resort on its shores.

These days, mineral extraction, recreation and other industries linked to the lake generate $2.5 billion annually, researchers say. It provides a critical way station for 10 million migratory birds. Its evaporated water turns to snowfall in nearby mountains, buoying a massive regional ski industry.

“In both figurative and very literal ways, it supports our way of life,” said ecologist Ben Abbott, a Brigham Young University associate professor. But it’s facing “a serious environmental catastrophe.”

Human claims on the water that flows toward the lake leave little to replenish it. Its surface dropped in 2022 to a record low, 10 feet below what is considered a healthy minimum.

Abbott was lead author of a January report that warned the lake could disappear within five years if trends continued — a fate that has befallen other saline lakes. An assessment published one month later by state agencies and other researchers was scarcely less dire, saying the “situation requires urgent action.”

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A wet winter provided a reprieve that could raise the lake level by about four feet this year, said Bonnie Baxter, director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster College and one of the January report’s co-authors. That still might only reach the mark of previous lows measured in 2021.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen this much green, seen this many birds and walked through this many clouds of midges,” Baxter marveled on an overcast morning at Antelope Island, a haven for bison, bighorn sheep and her specialty of microbialites — rocky mounds that dot the lake and sustain brine shrimp and the brine flies that birds eat.

But, she added: “We need five more years of this.”

She talks about the shrinking lake to anyone who will listen, hoping to make them care. She recently has been invited to speak by assisted-living homes, the League of Women Voters, the state’s farm bureau and — to her surprise — the Mormon Church. Baxter, who is not a member, views its water donation as “reparations to the land.”

In deep-red Utah, where most Mormons are Republicans, a pro-industry and government-skeptical ethos long fueled “really strong anti-environmental attitudes among members of the church,” said George Handley, a Brigham Young University professor who co-founded LDS Earth Stewardship. The nonprofit highlights the faith’s teachings on caring for natural resources.

As the Western megadrought has deepened, though, Handley has sensed a shift. While environmental advocates say lawmakers’ efforts have not matched the gravity of the situation, water conservation has been a major topic of Utah’s recent legislative sessions.

“It certainly helps that the political culture is less polarized today on this than it was,” he said. “It creates a little bit of space for the church to operate more comfortably on these issues.”

The 2023 report, which generated widespread media coverage, was timed to push state lawmakers into further action. Its publication on the website of BYU — a church-owned university — was strategic.

“I think there is no group that has more credibility than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in solving this issue,” said Abbott, a church member who has consulted with officials at headquarters.

Abbott compares the church’s donation — about equal to the amount used yearly on all golf courses in the Great Salt Lake watershed — to a drop of water in a bucket, albeit a large one. “What we need is 20 to 50 of those donations,” he said.

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Indeed, the gift will not raise lake levels: That water was already flowing to it, partly through the reedy shallows of Farmington Bay, a birding and duck-hunting hot spot. Its value, boosters say, is that it now cannot ever be diverted for other purposes.

The church hopes other large landowners with water to spare will follow suit, Sedgwick said. It hopes the same of its work reducing the sprawling emerald lawns at the meetinghouses — neighborhood churches used for weekly services — that seem ubiquitous in the Salt Lake Valley.

Marcelle Shoop, an Audubon Society official who is executive director of the newly created Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, said similar donations and transfers of water rights are in the works. The Mormons’ announcement “did spark a lot of interest.”

And Mike Maxwell, who heads LDS Earth Stewardship’s Salt Lake City Chapter, said individual members also are talking about what they might do. He recently examined his home’s outdoor water use and was shocked by the amount.

“I’m killing 6,500 square feet of grass in my yard this year,” he said.

In his speech, Bishop Waddell acknowledged that the church had long urged followers to plant grass as a symbol of beauty and pride. Its own lawns have come under scrutiny: In October, after its official statement on water conservation and a brutally dry summer, Axios reported that more than 90 percent of 120 LDS properties it surveyed in Salt Lake County had “healthy, green turf grass.”

The church changed meetinghouse landscaping standards for new builds and retrofits in 2007, Sedgwick said, shifting from a typical look of mostly lawn to less than 40 percent, with plants, trees, rock and mulch filling out the rest. Other measures — such as “smart” sprinkler systems that don’t turn on when it’s raining — helped meetinghouses in Salt Lake County cut water use by one-third between 2020 and 2022, according to officials.

Nonfunctional turf at churches is being eyed for removal and lower-water native grasses considered where possible, Sedgwick said. But wholesale tear-outs are not yet on the table, in part because of costs and concern about creating heat islands.

“We also take pride in our buildings — we want them to be beautiful places of worship and inviting to the community,” Sedgwick added. “We don’t want them to be just a pile of rocks.”

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