‘We realize this is just a start’ — LDS Church leader talks historic water donation to Great Salt Lake

Massive conservation efforts are underway at church properties, and leaders hope their actions will open the floodgate for others to follow.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints made a historic donation of 20,000 acre-feet to the Great Salt Lake this week — a water supply the lake officially can call its own forever. And a top church authority says more actions are underway to be part of the solution in solving Utah’s immense water problems.

The Great Salt Lake, the West’s largest saline system, has hit record-low elevations two years in a row. Its multimillion-dollar industries are struggling to remain viable and its ecosystem is showing signs of collapse. Toxic lakebed dust is already blowing into the urban communities of millions living near its shores.

The lake has seen shortages of about 1.2 million acre-feet of water inflows in recent years. With that in mind, Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor of the church’s Presiding Bishopric, acknowledged the gift is just a “small part” of what the Great Salt Lake needs.

“We realize this is just a start,” Waddell said, addressing a group of lake scientists, water attorneys, lawmakers, policymakers and lake advocates at a “Future of the Great Salt Lake” symposium hosted Friday at the University of Utah.

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 great blue heron stands watch alongside other water fowl at Farmington Bay on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023.

“We’re also conducting an evaluation to identify other church-owned water assets that can feasibly 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 vast array of landholdings 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 the church owns at least 75,000 acre-feet worth of water rights in Utah watersheds upstream of the lake.

“As a first priority,” Waddell said, “we are evaluating the water assets within the five counties surrounding the Great Salt Lake, as well as water assets delivered from Utah Lake, all of which we expect will have the highest likelihood of successful delivery to the lake.”

While minor in the context of the lake’s needs, the church’s donation of 20,000 acre-feet is significant. Utah lawmakers have worked to revise the state’s outdated laws so water can be used to benefit environmental resources, including the Great Salt Lake.

Last year, the Legislature established a $40 million Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust, meant to buy or lease water rights from willing sellers. The church’s gift marks the first success of that program, and it’s the first time the Great Salt Lake has held claim to its own water.

“We’re grateful that that this effort working with the state will allow that water to be saved in perpetuity,” Waddell said. “That was a significant aspect of that donation, wanting to make sure it would continue, that it wouldn’t be used for other things in the future.”

And given the booming growth on Utah’s Wasatch Front and beyond, the water supply is incredibly valuable. Its location within a canal company near the lake’s shores also ensures it won’t get siphoned away by other downstream users.

“We want the things that will actually make a difference to the Great Salt Lake,” Waddell said. “We know that every bit helps, and we do invite other water asset owners to consider the new opportunities afforded by recent legislative changes and determine how they might help in this important effort.”

He also urged “engagement and responsiveness to legislative changes and other recommendations from subject-matter experts recognizing the need to act with urgency and unity towards the future we hope for — one with a healthy Great Salt Lake.”

Measurable changes to the church’s water use

Church leaders aren’t just looking to water rights to address shortages in the region.

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

Church officials are busy overhauling church-owned properties, improving irrigation, installing smart controllers and sensors, and replacing turf with water-wise vegetation. Part of the effort includes transitioning church meetinghouse properties with sprawling lawns to 35% turf.

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

“We acknowledge that our efforts have not been perfect,” Waddell said. “And we invite church and community members to contact local church leadership if they observe any instances where best practices are not actually practiced.”

One drawing of a planned meetinghouse in Vineyard shows almost no grass at all — only islands of mulch, native plants and trees.

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

Waddell also presented plans for the heart of the church’s operations at Temple Square, now undergoing a massive makeover, in downtown Salt Lake City.

Turf grass will get cut by 35%. The number of trees will increase by 30% to help cool the urban heat island effect. Many annual plants will be replaced with less water-intensive perennials, and plans call for cutting summertime watering by up to 40%.

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

(Image courtesy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Rendering of future plans for Temple Square. The new grounds will feature more perennials, less grass and 30% more trees. Turfgrass is being reduced by 35% and annuals by 50%. All turfgrass will receive 35-40% less water from June to September.

The church’s cultural ties to the Great Salt Lake

Waddell also discussed the significance of the Great Salt Lake in church history. The lake was one of the first things Mormon pioneers saw and commented on when they entered the Salt Lake Valley in July 1847. They quickly got to work digging canals and diversions to grow food and cities.

The church’s prophet and leader at the time, Brigham Young, “advocated for water to be held as a public resource and not in private ownership,” Waddell said, “which was a radical notion by the standards of mid-19th century America.”

A few decades later, the church established the Inland Crystal Salt Co., 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 historic preservation officer, holds a copy of a photograph, above, of what visitors to Saltair I would've seen from where Merritt stands near the resort's former location, Thursday, July 21, 2022.

(Utah State Historical Society) Great Salt Lake bathers at Saltair pose for a photograph during Utah Centennial celebration holiday, July 24, 1947.

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

“Acting on these larger trends, the Improvement and Beautification Committee promoted the planting of lawns at the churches chapels,” Waddell said. “Church leaders approved this practice, in part because they wanted meetinghouse grounds to look clean and beautiful in preparation for the 1947 centennial celebration of the arrival of the pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley.”

The hunger for lush lawns in arid Utah lingered for nearly a century, showing the church’s immense cultural influence. But with the Great Salt Lake shrinking, groundwater supplies getting pumped dry, and tensions heating up among states sharing the Colorado River, attitudes are starting to shift.

“Our ability to be wise stewards of the Earth is dependent on our understanding of the natural resources we’ve been blessed with,” Waddell said. “As our understanding of the environment grows, so does our opportunity to align our practices with the environmental realities we face.”

CorrectionMarch 17, 8:20 p.m.: This story was updated to correct the amount of water the church donated to the Great Salt Lake.