Two months after an emergency warning of “unprecedented” danger to Utah’s public health, environment and economy if the Great Salt Lake does not receive a “dramatic” influx of water by 2024, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints donated the equivalent of a reservoir’s worth of water to the iconic lake.
The permanent donation of 5,700 water shares was announced Wednesday in a news release by the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
“We’ve been working on this for a long time and I’m so excited to finally make it public,” Utah Gov. Spencer Cox said in a tweet. “We are so grateful to the church for their generosity and stewardship. Together with the state’s $1B investment and massive policy changes, the future of the lake has never been more secure!”
Recent warnings have predicted the Great Salt Lake could disappear within five years, creating an ecological catastrophe.
“The Great Salt Lake and the ecosystem that depends on it are so important. The church wants to be part of the solution because we all have a responsibility to care for and be good stewards of the natural resources that God has given to us. We invite others to join with us to help,” Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric of the church, said in the news release.
The donation is equivalent to over 20,000 acre-feet, DNR said. The church historically used the water for agriculture. Now that water will flow to the lake in perpetuity.
In Utah, water shares are certificates issued by irrigation companies that hold water rights. Shares are measured in acre-feet. An acre-foot is equal to an acre of water a foot deep. One acre-foot of water equals 325,851 gallons.
The church’s donation is larger than 15,000 football fields covered by water a foot deep.
Utah’s recent drought has contributed to record-low water volume in the lake, but most of the problem is man-made. Water flowing to the lake has declined 39% since 1850 due to diverted rivers and streams, according to Utah State University researchers. Some 63% of the diverted water goes to agriculture, 13% to solar ponds, 11% to cities and 13% to other uses.
The Great Salt Lake, the great landmark Jim Bridger reported in the 1820s from which Salt Lake City takes its name, has been drying up for years. The situation has become dire.
The church’s donation, believed to be the largest-ever permanent donation to the Great Salt Lake, ensures water will continue to flow to the lake and preserve critical shoreline and wetland habitat in Farmington Bay, the DNR release said.
A dead Great Salt Lake would result in toxic arcenic-laced dust in the wind, reduced air quality, less snow for a state with a major ski industry and other economic consequences. A dry lake also would result in lost habitat for wildlife.
Less snow would also mean less water in the state’s mountains, rivers and reservoirs.
The news release said the lake contributes $1.9 billion to Utah’s economy (adjusted for inflation), provides over 7,700 jobs, supports 80% of Utah’s valuable wetlands, and provides irreplaceable breeding and stopover habitats for millions of birds to rest and refuel during migration each year. Lake-effect snow also contributes 5 to 10% to Utah’s snowpack.
“We are in an all-hands-on-deck emergency,” researchers said in the January emergency study provided to Utah legislators, “and we need farmers, counties, cities, businesses, churches, universities and other organizations to do everything in their power to reduce outdoor water use.”
The church reduced its water use at temples and meetinghouses last June, allowing some typically green lawns to turn brown and dormant.
Wednesday’s donation is equal to the church providing a reservoir’s amount of water each year, the news release, comparing its size to Little Dell Reservoir 13 miles east of Salt Lake City. Little Dell is a large man-made body of water used for drinking water, fishing, boating and wildlife enhancement.
The lake now stands at 4,189.42 feet above sea level, down from the historic high of 4,211.6 feet set in 1986. The current volume as winter closes is slightly above the record low set in November of 4,188.2 feet. The lake usually reaches its annual peak in May with the spring runoff, then wanes again through summer and into early fall.
Cox said the church’s donation will make a real difference for the lake.
“The Great Salt Lake is a critical asset environmentally, ecologically and economically, and we all need to work together to protect and preserve it,” he said in the news release.
Cox and Bishop Waddell are expected to say more about the donation Friday at the University of Utah on the second day of the annual Wallace Stegner Symposium. This year’s symposium is focused on the future of the Great Salt Lake.
The Church of Jesus Christ long has preached sound environmental stewardship. It publishes a topic page on its web site, complete with resources to learn more.
A Latter-day Saint leader, Elder Marcus B. Nash, laid out the church’s theology and history on environmentalism in a landmark talk at a previous Stegner Symposium.
“Our approach to the environment must be prudent, realistic, balanced and consistent with the needs of the earth and of current and future generations,” said Elder Nash, a General Authority Seventy.
In 2018, another Latter-day Saint leader called environmental stewardship a moral imperative.
A board member of the independent Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance took to Twitter Wednesday to call the donation “a welcome sign of hope and action.”
“Such an awesome development,” Ben Abbott tweeted. “Thank you @Ch_JesusChrist for leading by example and helping us understand the urgency of our current situation and start working. Faith plus works equals a real chance to solve problems.”
DNR said the donation is exemplary and also will provide new tools for preservation efforts.
“The transaction paves the way for future partnerships and will include new measurement infrastructure to better track water deliveries to the lake,” the release said.
DNR will manage the donation with the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust.
“This donation is invaluable because it’s a permanent, dedicated source of water that will benefit the lake year after year. I appreciate the collaborative effort among the church, DNR and conservation groups,” said Joel Ferry, executive director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources. “We look forward to continuing to work together to safeguard the lake.”
The Great Salt Lake is renowned for being the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere and the eighth largest in the world.
“This generous donation is an exceptional contribution to ensuring water flows to preserve the lake and its special habitats, while also benefiting Utah communities,” said Marcelle Shoop, executive director of the Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust. “We are extremely appreciative of this commitment being made by the church, the efforts of DNR and the collaborative approach to addressing the water needs of the lake.”