SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Donation of a small reservoir of water rights to Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Replace grass with rocks and waterscapes around well-maintained churches. Reduced water use by more than a third outside of the Temple Square headquarters in Salt Lake City. These are some of the actions Utah-based The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is taking to address the reality of a drier and rapidly approaching future.
Friday’s remarks by Bishop Christopher Waddell of the University of Utah underlined how the church — one of the largest land and water rights holders in the Western United States — is expanding its role in conservation and seeking solutions “that protect the future for all God’s rights children.”
“Our ability to be wise stewards of the earth depends on our understanding of the natural resources with which we have been blessed,” senior church official said at a symposium on the future of the Great Salt Lake at the University of Utah SJ Quinney College of Law.
Speaking after a long list of scientists and Republican Gov. Spencer Cox, Waddell said the church’s focus on stewardship dates back to the Brigham Young era, noting that the ancestor of the faith endorsed what one historian called a “radical notion” – that water is a public resource, not just a matter of private property rights.
He said the church was grateful for the wet winter — but not surprised given the power of prayer — and urged members of the faith to conserve water and not let the season’s abundant snow go to waste.
The church’s expanded role in Utah’s conservation efforts comes as a growing number of large institutions recognize that more action will likely be needed to prepare for future challenges in the drought-stricken western United States. Yet it’s also rekindling the recurring questions from a growing chorus of conservationists and scientists about whether the region’s leaders — in business, politics and religion — are acting aggressively enough to address the drought and its looming aftermath.
One acre-foot is enough water to supply about two or three US households for a year, and the lake is operating on a deficit of 1.2 million acre-feet.
Church officials announced earlier this week that they plan to donate about 20,000 acres of water rights to the Great Salt Lake, which has dwindled to its lowest levels on record due to a supply-demand imbalance caused by decades of regional drought. The church has at least 75,000 acre-feet of active water rights, the Salt Lake Tribune reported in February.
The church donation is about the size of a small reservoir and about 2 percent of what is needed to keep the lake at its current level, according to research by a group of scientists led by Brigham ecologist Ben Abbott. Young University.
“It’s a drop in the bucket on one level, but it’s also a big drop,” Abbott said of the church’s donation.
Although less water now flows through the rivers that have historically fed the lake, growing cities and farms continue to draw water, causing the lake’s elevation to plummet. If the lake continues to shrink, it could be at risk of being an ecological, economic and public health disaster; as more toxic dust is exposed on the coast, it will likely endanger native species, foul the air in surrounding communities, and reduce the “lake-effect” snow that the state’s ski industry relies on.
Scientists fear that if the lake’s current trajectory continues, the surrounding areas could become desolate wastelands like the areas surrounding parts of California’s interior Salton Sea and Owens Valley.
Utah lawmakers have passed a series of drought-related measures to make farming more efficient and to pay homeowners for grass replacements. Yet they haven’t made more drastic proposals on par with neighboring states, amid winter snows that should temporarily stave off crises at both Lake Powell on the Utah-Arizona border and the Great Salt Lake.
“Mother nature has really helped us,” Republican Sen. Scott Sandall said earlier this month. “We didn’t have to pull that lever for emergency use.”
With scientists predicting the lake could dry up in as little as five years, calls have grown louder for lawmakers to commit to keeping the lake at a base elevation and to consider more aggressive policies to ensure more water is delivered between competing interests such as development municipalities and water-intensive farms.
Though lawmakers and state leaders laud ongoing conservation efforts, they still plan to dam the Bear River – the largest tributary that feeds the Great Salt Lake – and the Lake Powell Pipeline, which would siphon water from the reservoir contracting Colorado River water storage for seven US states and Mexico.
“Our state leaders have failed to solve the Great Salt Lake crisis because they turned away from meaningful solutions to putting water into the lake,” said Zach Frankel, executive director of the Utah Rivers Council.
On Friday, Cox was firm in refuting the notion that political leaders aren’t doing enough to save the Great Salt Lake. He cautioned scientists about the degree of certainty with which they present projections of “doom and gloom” and warned activists that the aggressive policy changes they seek could spark a fierce public backlash and jeopardize progress.
“We are going faster than I ever thought we would go. But if we start confiscating farms and water shares, you will see politicians responding very quickly. People will run to make sure we’re not saving the Great Salt Lake,” Cox said. “They’ll be elected. Those are the kinds of things you need to think about.”