The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is implementing a comprehensive plan for reducing its water consumption and may be able to provide more to help the Great Salt Lake, a church leader said Friday at the 28th annual Wallace Stegner Symposium, which focused this year on the lake’s crisis.

“A study is taking place of all of our water assets to see which ones perhaps we’re not using and which ones we could do without even if we are using them,” said Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric. “I would be surprised if this is the last donation or participation of the church in this effort.”

Earlier this week, the church made the largest water donation in state history — 6.5 billion gallons—dedicated to the Great Salt Lake.

In addition to the donation, Bishop Waddell described how the church is reducing water usage on Temple Square, at Brigham Young University and at meetinghouses across the state in what is the most complete public review so far of the church’s water conservation efforts in Utah.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also spoke at the symposium Friday, held at the University of Utah, and energetically implored researchers and others desperately trying to save the lake to consider carefully how they can best rally Utahns to the cause by tailoring their messages to their audience.

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Church makes largest-ever donation of water shares to benefit Great Salt Lake
A landscape design rendering for a future meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Vineyard, Utah.
A landscape design rendering for a future meetinghouse of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Vineyard, Utah. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“Doom and gloom does not inspire change,” Cox said on the final day of the symposium. “I believe it has never inspired change. I think that is core to our human nature. When we tell people that the sky is falling, what most people do is they give up.”

Researchers should consider Utahns to be partners in the cause and be honest with them, he said, inspiring trust by admitting when they are wrong about something, and celebrating every victory, even if small or incremental.

For example, Cox addressed criticism of his call for prayer to ask God to ease Utah’s two-decade drought.

“I will tell you I was a little shocked at the amount of pushback and mocking...,” he said. “We did not see an immediate influx of rain and snow, I admit that, but I will tell you what we did see: We saw people of faith and people not of faith immediately start using much less water. The conservation that took place in our state over the past two summers far exceeded my highest expectations.

“When we ask people to pray, what I believe and what I understand is people that are praying for more water will use less water.”

Utah has also had a banner winter of rain and snow.

“We, today, are in record territory when it comes to snow water equivalent in our mountains. That is something to be celebrated, celebrated, celebrated,” Cox said.

Those who discount small improvements “have the wrong message,” the governor said. “These are moments we should celebrate, because in celebration we inspire others to do and make change.”

Bishop Waddell acknowledged “God’s hand in providing us this blessing,” adding “and our work is not done.”

The church’s donation of 5,700 agricultural water shares that it owned is the equivalent, Bishop Waddell said, of annual water to 20,000 homes. The donation will divert water the church had for its farms to the Great Salt Lake.

The symposium audience applauded the donation.

A map showing the general area from which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated water to the Great Salt Lake.
A map showing the general area from which The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated 5,700 water shares to bolster the Great Salt Lake, which is in crisis. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

“Hopefully there is a lot of applause for a lot of different people and a lot of organizations going forward, because we realize this is just a start,” Bishop Waddell said. “We’re grateful to participate in that.”

Cox also discussed the work of the Utah Legislature, which recently completed its 2023 session, addressing those who say the legislature accomplished too little related to the Great Salt Lake.

“I’m very proud of what the legislature has accomplished over the past two sessions (2022 and 2023), and we should take those victories because incremental change is the only way to get change,” he said.

What the church is doing

Bishop Waddell described the way the church is saving water on its Utah farms, on temple grounds, at BYU and more.

He said historically, Latter-day Saint pioneers were known for their irrigation networks and innovations, but acknowledged that a 1937 church Improvement and Beautification Committee recommended landscaping practices that included planting of lawns, a practice widespread throughout the United States.

“The impact that caring for these lawns could have on water supplies has become more apparent, which is why we’re here today,” he said.

Bishop W. Christopher Waddell speaks at the Wallace Stegner Symposium at the University of Utah on Friday, March 17, 2023.
Bishop W. Christopher Waddell of the Presiding Bishopric speaks at the 28th annual Wallace Stegner Center Symposium at the University of Utah on Friday, March 17, 2023. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

When drought conditions struck Utah and other western states at the turn of the 21st century, the Presiding Bishopric implemented conservation measures for the watering of church lawns, he said.

Water conservation efforts ramped up again last year as drought conditions worsened. The church released an official statement on water conservation and announced it would allow some temple and meetinghouse landscapes to go brown.

What is happening at meetinghouses

Church conservation measures included a 25% reduction in water used for landscaping, including higher lawnmower settings so grass would retain more moisture.

At about the same time, the church began to reduce the amount of lawn at new meetinghouses. Where meetinghouse landscaping once was 80% to 90% grass, new buildings are now 35% to 40% lawn, Bishop Waddell said.

A reduced-lawn landscape at a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse. The church is moving away from traditional landscaping to save water.
A reduced-lawn landscape at a Latter-day Saint meetinghouse. The church is transitioning away from traditional landscaping, which included 80% percent to 90% lawn, toward a standard of 35% to 40% lawn for landscapes. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The impact of those changes is illustrated by a 35% reduction of water use at meetinghouses in Salt Lake County from 2020 to 2022, he continued.

New meetinghouses also now come with installation of smart controllers, hydrometers, rain sensors and drip irrigation systems, which is also true for temples and other church facilities, Bishop Waddell said.

The church today delays first watering as long as possible and applies water-saving products to lawns.

Bishop Waddell told the Deseret News the church sometimes receives criticism because its lawns look greener than others, but he said the green is a result of better soils and turf and plants that take less water.

“Just because the visual is not necessarily there — they’re not turning all golden brown —doesn’t mean that there’s not a reduction in water usage. That’s absolutely going on,” he said in an interview.

He also showed a rendering of the landscape plan for a new meetinghouse in Vineyard, Utah, that demonstrates the current plan to use native or adapted, drought-tolerant plants and trees.

“Our aim is to understand more fully what sustainable landscaping should be based on local climates and to identify opportunities to conserve water and natural resources. This includes improving runoff water quality, collecting and reusing stormwater, mitigating the heat island effect and integrating the landscape into the existing and regional context.”

The church is involved in a retrofit pilot program at select Utah meetinghouses with landscape architects deploying sustainability landscape principles that include recommendations for LEED and Sustainable Sites initiatives.

What is the church doing on Temple Square

Future visitors to Temple Square will notice major differences in the landscaping when the Salt Lake Temple renovation is completed.

Already, the church saved 40 million gallons of water each year at church headquarters from 2018-22. The renovation of the Salt Lake Temple and its grounds will add significantly to water savings, he said.

Less grass and more perennial plants and trees will be evident, Bishop Waddell said.

“Our new tree count will be increased by 30% to reduce that heat island effect and establish tree canopies that will protect the plants below and reduce our (heating and cooling) of surrounding buildings,” he said.

A rendering of the new Church Office Building plaza, which will feature more trees in a way that reduces water consumption.
A rendering of the new Church Office Building plaza. 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% to 40% less water from June to September, a church leader said. | The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

The amount of grass will be reduced by 35% and the number of annual plants will be cut back by 50%.

“We’ve also executed a turf grass summer dormancy program in which all turf grass will receive 35% to 40% less irrigation water from June to September,” he said.

The changes will allow the church to save 40 million to 50 million gallons a year compared to pre-renovation amounts, Bishop Waddell said. Once the grass and trees are more established, that savings will increase by an additional 15 million to 20 million gallons a year.

Bishop Waddell said the church asks members to join with others to pray for rain and invites all people to reduce water use.

“Though our efforts have not been and are still not perfect — we recognize that — there is a continuing ongoing churchwide effort to improve our care of natural resources, including the implementation of best practices, and available technology to improve our water efficiency,” Bishop Waddell said.

What is the church doing to reduce water consumption at BYU?

BYU has reduced its culinary water use by two-thirds over the past 20 years, Bishop Waddell said.

The campus now conducts regular water audits and uses smart irrigation systems and water-wise landscaping, including drought-tolerant plants and mulch made of campus green waste.

“This mulch reduces water usage in flower and shrub beds by 30%,” Bishop Waddell said. “In response to heightened water concerns over the last decade, most of BYU’s campus is now watered using secondary sources. The water master monitors stream flows and reduces flows, depending on conditions, by as little as 20% in spring to as much as 100% in late summer. As needed, campus lawns go dormant during dry spells.”

What will the church do next to help the Great Salt Lake?

Bishop Waddell and Jenica Sedgwick, the church’s sustainability manager, also praised the Legislature for passing HB33. “Providing an option to lease water shares is a really wonderful adjustment,” Sedgwick told the Deseret News, referring to the legislation.

That change in Utah law makes it possible for the church or other entities that own water rights or shares to lease them instead of surrendering them under the old Utah system of “use it or lose it.”

The church established a Sustainability Office and Sustainability Leadership Committee under the Presiding Bishopric last year.

“In accordance with HB33 passed last year, we are also conducting an evaluation to identify other church-owned water assets that can feasibly be delivered to the Great Salt Lake — a continuation of our efforts that began in 2021,” Bishop Waddell said. “As a first priority, we are evaluating the water assets within the five counties surrounding the Great Salt Lake as well as water assets diverted from Utah Lake which we expect will have the highest likelihood of successful delivery to the lake.”

He hopes others will follow the church’s example, since it represents only 2.4% of the state’s irrigated agricultural land.

“We know that every bit helps, and we 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.”

A statewide problem

Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson also praised the church’s donation, which he said was unsolicited.

“We’ve got other organizations, private organizations that have water, that are contemplating similar contributions to the lake,” he said.

“This is absolutely a team effort,” Wilson added. “Government cannot solve this problem on its own. Scientists and researchers cannot solve the problem with the Great Salt Lake on its own. And private businesses and organizations also can’t do it on their own.”

Both Cox and Wilson said the record snowpack season won’t make anyone comfortable. They pledged that state leaders will continue to make the Great Salt Lake a major priority, one the Legislature has allocated $1 billion to over its 2022 and 2023 sessions.

“This is going to take a decade, at least, of concerted effort like we’ve had the last two years, to save the Great Salt Lake,” Wilson said.

Cox said lake advocates who want more need to celebrate the progress so far and the fact that the Legislature and state’s population are engaged in this issue.

“This legislature is moving,” Cox said. “I thought it would take us five or six years to get a couple of these big bills that change 150 years of water policy in this state. This use-it-or-lose-it mentality and legal structure that we have had has finally changed. That is worthy of huge celebration, $1 billion dollars in two years in water investment in the state. I never thought in my lifetime, we would see that kind of an investment from a legislature.”

Read Bishop Waddell’s full remarks here.