It sounds like a plot from an apocalyptic movie.
A beleaguered 19th-century band of spiritual seekers settles around a salty lake in what they view as an uninhabited desert. They plant trees and flowers and farms and gardens, while erecting an impressive city, eventually making the barren landscape seem like a green oasis. They forget about the lake, though, even as it slowly shrivels over more than a century of extreme use.
With the arrival of climate change and yearslong droughts, the lake level plunges, and the water vanishes. Brine shrimp and the migratory birds that feed on them fade away. Windstorms from the dry lakebed hurl arsenic and dangerous metals into the air. Thousands upon thousands of residents breathing this toxic brew of dust and pollutants start suffering from asthma and other lung diseases. The dwindling snowpack of nearby mountains no longer can maintain a once-booming ski industry or supply life-giving water to the people, the animals and the farms below. The economy collapses. The cities empty out. The place becomes … uninhabitable.
This is not mere idle speculation. It is a doomsday scenario hurtling toward Utah, which began as a holy haven to Mormon pioneers and is now the current world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a faith of nearly 17 million members.
The church itself has much to lose in this nightmarish future. Its history is here. Its strength — both in membership and, frankly, money — is here. Its iconic Salt Lake Temple and global offices are here. Its chapels dot the streets. Its other temples line the hills. And its followers fill most of the seats of power.
“If we let the Great Salt Lake dry up,” warns Ben Abbott, a professor of plant and wildlife science at church-owned Brigham Young University, “its death will be felt by everybody.”
Utah Gov. Spencer Cox is meeting with Latter-day Saint leaders about the lake, but neither party is detailing its joint efforts publicly.
The church also declined to comment on a range of questions, including the water it has conserved at Utah churches, the water rights it controls, the property it owns in the Great Salt Lake Basin and the plans, if any, it has to help preserve the lake.
“I hope the church does speak out and does something big,” Abbott says, “but if it doesn’t, individuals must.”
After all, Latter-day Saint scripture says members shouldn’t “be command[ed] in all things,” adds the activist, alluding to the faith’s Doctrine and Covenants. “If we wait to be told what to do, we are ‘slothful servants.’ We have to be responsible for our own actions. There are both moral and practical implications of our choices.”
Many Utah members have yet to “come to grips,” Abbott says, “with how much of a threat this is to our way of life.”
Maybe it’s time to step away from making this water-starved desert “blossom as a rose.”
The church’s water?
That’s because the earliest pioneers established farms soon after entering the Salt Lake Valley.
The church then “held onto those water rights,” he says, “or used them to meet the water needs of new developments.”
The Salt Lake City-based faith has a sweeping array of landholdings in Utah and across the United States, according to an admittedly incomplete database created by the Truth & Transparency Foundation and reported in The Salt Lake Tribune. A search of that database revealed more than 3,900 parcels owned by the church’s many real estate arms within the Great Salt Lake’s watershed, which includes parts of Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. Those parcels total hundreds of thousands of acres. The church’s Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch in Utah’s Rich County accounts for about 200,000 acres alone.
How much water the church controls is even harder to gauge.
When users apply for a water right, they’re typically granted a specific volume, measured in acre-feet, or a specific flow they can pump from the ground or divert from a stream, measured in cubic feet per second. Sometimes they receive a combination of the two. And just because someone’s name turns up a water right when searching Utah’s database doesn’t mean the right is “active.”
A public records search submitted to the Utah Division of Water Rights revealed the church and its various real estate entities have active rights to about 75,000 acre-feet and 600 cubic feet per second of water in the Great Salt Lake Basin.
“That sounds like a lot,” Simonsen says, “but it wouldn’t surprise me if it had much more.”
An acre-foot is enough to cover one acre with one foot of water. The average farmer taps about 1.5 acre-feet per acre of irrigated land, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Given the church’s vast landownership, the amount of basin water rights it appears to hold does seem low.
Still, to put the church’s 75,000 acre-feet into context, the Great Salt Lake needs about 2 million acre-feet flowing to it annually to maintain a sustainable elevation. It has run a deficit of about 1.2 million acre-feet per season in recent years.
While the lake is famous for its meandering shoreline and capricious nature — it caused havoc along the Wasatch Front in the 1980s, for example, when it swelled to a historic high — the long-term trend has been one of decline since the pioneers first arrived.
Much of the needed water is “not going to the lake but to municipal or agricultural use,” Simonsen says. “In the past decade, really large church farms were converted into new subdivisions.”
What was “fertile and productive land for food,” he says, now “is not.”
State-sponsored research has found that diversions, not drought, are largely to blame for the lake’s decline. It would be 11 feet higher if not for all the farms, cities and industries that have popped up along its shores and tributary rivers. Agriculture accounts for 63% of those depletions.
Despite the fuzzy data on how much land and water the church controls, what’s clear is that it owns some water rights that are quite old. About 450 predate Utah becoming a state in 1896. Old rights receive first priority in times of water shortage, making them super valuable and super helpful for the shrinking lake.
Legislators have retooled Utah’s pioneer-era water rules in recent years so that right holders can lease their water to benefit the environment by, for instance, boosting stream flows or saving the Great Salt Lake. So far, however, right holders who could move the dial appear reluctant to participate, including the Latter-day Saints.
Cox said in July he was “having conversations” with church leaders about potential water leases. Asked for an update for this story, a spokesperson for the governor noted that “talks are ongoing,” but “no agreement has been signed yet.” They are scheduled to meet again early this month.
Church’s cultural influence
The church’s influence on water issues is “crucial,” Abbott says, and even more important than the land that it directly controls.
Rank-and-file members listen to their leaders and interpret their actions, the BYU professor says. “They look at church properties. If the grass is green, they assume the drought must not be that bad or at least that the church is not taking it that seriously.”
The church did issue a strong news release last year about water conservation.
“Much of the American West is experiencing serious drought. In this area of the United States, the church is working to reduce water use in all our buildings and facilities, including exterior landscaping,” the release states. “The church has installed water-wise irrigation systems and low-flow plumbing systems in buildings constructed since the early 2000s and continues to retrofit older systems. Water conservation efforts continue to include the expansion of smart controllers, hydrometers, rain sensors, drip irrigation and use of secondary or reclaimed water.”
It adds: “Watering of lawns and landscapes at temples, meetinghouses and other buildings is being reduced. In some cases, landscapes will be permitted to brown and become dormant. Church historic sites in regions affected by drought have successfully reduced water usage by one-third. In addition, planning is underway to identify landscape changes that will permanently reduce water use.”
The release does not give specific examples of properties that have dramatically reduced water use, however, and does not offer other measurable conservation efforts or goals.
It also makes no mention of the Great Salt Lake, and observers note that the water cutbacks have been implemented with varying results. Some church lawns remained green throughout the summer.
So, what else could Utah’s predominant faith — and its most powerful institution — do?
The global faith has paid for water programs around the world, building wells in Africa, for example, so some wonder why it doesn’t tap its deep financial reservoir — including tens of billions of dollars in investment holdings — to fund water projects near its own headquarters?
The new Great Salt Lake Water Trust allows any organization or individual to contribute and literally buy or lease water for the lake, Abbott says. It would be a smart place for the church to commit some resources.
For his part, Simonsen offers three other recommendations:
• Lose the lawns, he says. “Let’s get out of the turf maintenance business.”
• If the church is not using water rights it owns, it should funnel those shares back into the rivers and streams that feed into the lake until it’s healthy again.
• Be an advocate for Latter-day Saints to do the same and be part of the solution. The economic and environmental impacts of losing the Great Salt Lake, he says, “are so enormous, the church should speak out and get engaged.”
Former church President Spencer W. Kimball, who died in 1985, was “very environmentally minded,” Simonsen says, regularly directing members to plant gardens and produce their own food.
More recently, two top church leaders preached the value of a green gospel.
First, Presiding Bishop Gérald Caussé, the ecclesiastical overseer of the church’s financial, real estate, investment and charitable operations, delivered an environmental entreaty at General Conference last October, urging members to “use the bountiful resources of the earth more reverently and prudently.”
Days later, at Orem’s Utah Valley University, Caussé's second counselor, Bishop L. Todd Budge, echoed and expanded on that message.
“When it comes to taking care of the earth, we cannot afford to think only of today,” Budge said. “The consequences of our actions, for better or worse, accumulate into the future and are sometimes felt only generations later. Stewardship requires feet and hands at work in the present with a gaze fixed on the future.”
Budge also highlighted ways the church — or its various departments — has reduced its environmental footprint, stating that the faith has slashed water use by more than 30 million gallons a year since 2018.
And, in 2017, apostle Dallin H. Oaks, now first counselor in the governing First Presidency, warned about climate change, noting that “seacoast cities are concerned with the rising level of the ocean, which will bring ocean tides to their doorsteps or over their thresholds. Global warming is also affecting agriculture and wildlife.”
The church as peacemaker and innovator
Besides trimming lush landscapes at its buildings, the church could play a role in helping Latter-day Saint farmers who use a lot of water.
Many farmers want to pare their water use, but some “are feeling embattled,” Abbott says, believing if they do so, it will just be “snatched up by urban development.”
The church could “play a crucial role in healing that divide,” he says. “It is uniquely positioned as a trusted institution with the rural community to act as an ambassador and connector, helping farmers take advantage of programs to reduce water use.”
Church headquarters could reach out to seniors with environmental expertise and call them to volunteer as church service missionaries to help with food and water security issues, Abbott says, and to aid farmers in navigating these complex legal and economic issues.
“Wouldn’t that be amazing,” he says, “to see in this watershed?” The church also could assign ward (congregational) or stake (regional) water conservation specialists. Such collaborative efforts, Abbott says, would “tap into our pioneer heritage.”
Ultimately, the crisis is “really about food since the most consumptive food is meat and dairy,” he says. “About 80% of water depletion is irrigated agriculture, with two-thirds as feed for animals.”
If farmers were just growing food for people, the professor says, “the Great Salt Lake would be filled right away.”
But Utah’s choice, right now, is to grow feed for livestock.
Eat meat ‘sparingly’
When most members and outsiders think of the Latter-day Saint Word of Wisdom health code, they jump to its prohibition on alcohol, coffee, tea and tobacco.
But the actual language includes much, much more. It says fruits and herbs should be eaten “in the season thereof” (sounds like the “eat local movement”) and with “prudence and thanksgiving.”
“Beasts” and “fowls of the air” should be used “sparingly” and only in times of “winter, or of cold, or famine.” It reiterates that counsel a second time, saying to eat these foods only in times of “famine” and “excess of hunger.”
That mandate to limit the consumption of animals is the only item, Abbott points out, “mentioned twice.”
The environmentalist finds it “quite moving that this revelation was given in an area where there was plenty of water and in a time of plenty,” he says. “It was very prophetic, seeing the consequences of not following that revelation has been the depletion of water, loss of biodiversity, erosion of our soils and pollution of our air.”
The world would “go a long way to solving those problems,” he says, “if we followed the Word of Wisdom.”
More church solutions?
If Latter-day Saints were to heed their health code more closely, they would definitely eat less beef, which is “resource intensive,” says Rachael Lauritzen, chair of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance.
In the short term, Lauritzen would like to see her church divest from alfalfa farming.
“Why don’t we grow hemp, which doesn’t need much water?” she asks. “Utah was once one of the top producers of wool and had lots of mills. Now we’ve outsourced it. There are lots of new ways to do it responsibly.”
On the member level, the church could be more explicit about communicating the importance of conserving water, she says. “The self-reliance curriculum could be revamped to prioritize preservation practices in regions like ours. It would include business ideas and best agricultural practices. Or how to take care of their yards.”
There won’t be a single “silver bullet” to solve the Great Salt Lake crisis, she says, but lots of strategies with the same goal in mind.
Theology of stewardship
Through the decades, the church’s general response to drought has been to “pray for rain or moisture,” says Brigham Daniels, an environmental lawyer and currently a guest lecturer at the University of Utah.
It’s a “very common thing,” Daniels says, “and part of the Mormon mindset.”
Daniels would like to see the church change that approach. Instead of asking God to change the environment, he says, “we should be praying for wisdom and for courage and the will to change our lives in ways that might be difficult.”
Members also should pray for “understanding and compassion,” he says, " especially for those who might have to make changes that are hard.”
In this “arid Great Basin, Latter-day Saints have built cities,” he says, “that are ignorant of the fact of that geography.”
As Utahns start weighing the tools that can be brought to bear on these problems, he says, “we need to get ourselves back into whack, or, as [author] Wallace Stegner advised, to build communities that match the landscape.”
When they came to these valleys, the early Mormon settlers “celebrated a miracle of gulls eating crickets,” Daniels says.
Indeed, the state bird is the California gull, a coastal bird.
“The lake needs a miracle itself. Something about us needs to change,” the law professor says. “Historically, the lake has given us a lot. It’s time to think more about what the lake needs and what our obligations are as its stewards.”
Not just the dominant faith, of course, but all Utahns need to work together to meet and beat this test.
As we save the lake, he says, “we save ourselves.”
This article is published as part of The Great Salt Lake Collaborative: A Solutions Journalism Initiative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that aims to inform readers about the Great Salt Lake.