Could the LDS Church do more to help save the Great Salt Lake?
A Great Salt Lake that completely dries up is the doomsday scenario for Utah’s future, leading to an environmental and economic collapse. Already, the dust that blows off the drying lakebed has led to worries throughout the valley.
As religious leaders of all faiths gathered at the Utah State Capitol to urge lawmakers to take action to save the state’s iconic landmark, it’s been argued that another name just as synonymous with Utah could be doing more — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At their Feb. 16 news conference, the Utah Unitarian Universalists called on legislators to support stewardship for the human, spiritual and natural values embodied by the Great Salt Lake. The Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance said all Utahns should limit their harm and protect what is left of the lake.
Despite differences in beliefs and practice, the Holladay United Church of Christ said nature and the lake are things all Utahns have in common. To them, that commonality alone should push everyone to save it and its “astounding beauty.”
“Jesus’ second greatest commandment was to love our neighbors as ourselves,” said Rev. Chelsea Page of Holladay United Church of Christ. “Here in Salt Lake, our neighbors include the millions of birds and other creatures who critically depend on Great Salt Lake for their very survival, as well as all people who inhabit our neighborhoods in the Salt Lake Valley.”
But what of the state’s dominant religion? That’s the question reporter Leia Larsen tried to answer for The Salt Lake Tribune.
The LDS Church has some of the oldest water rights in Utah. While it was difficult to find an exact figure, Larsen said they control about 10% of what the Great Salt Lake needs to reach healthy levels.
“If they don’t need them, if they’re not using them, it should maybe participate in some of these programs that would funnel water to the lake,” Larsen said.
Discussions like this are ongoing between state leaders and the church, but it’s still unclear what they might agree to.
There are more practical efforts that could be done to support the Great Salt Lake. For example, Larsen said there is doctrine within the church that can help. In the same doctrine that instructs church members to abstain from alcohol, it also talks about eating meat sparingly and not only during times of famine — suggesting that the church could influence consumption and agricultural practices that affect the lake.
“Right there in their own scripture and their own doctrine is a great piece of advice,” Larsen said.
Another way to assist would be to help make connections. State lawmakers are trying to get water rights holders, especially farmers, to lease their water in order to raise lake levels. Larsen pointed out that a lot of farmers are a little hesitant and skeptical, but since many are Latter-day Saints, the church could help with those conversations.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Pamela McCall: In your reporting, you say the church can play a crucial role in healing the divide between urban and rural communities. What do you mean by that?
Leia Larsen: There's a lot of vilification of alfalfa growers right now with people saying, ‘Why should I xeriscape, my lawn? Why should I rip my strip? It doesn't make a difference, it's just going to go to fill these reservoirs so we can plan for more growth. Meanwhile, there's all these farmers out in the rural areas growing alfalfa, and that's what's using most of the water.’ And then I think most of those farmers in turn feel under attack and misunderstood. And maybe it's partly fueling why they don't want to participate in some of these programs the state is trying to create. So I do think that, you know, the church has members in both of these communities. So maybe they could bridge that divide in a way.
PM: What is the church itself doing to address the drying lake?
LL: It's hard to say at this point. They have put out some of this messaging that they are conserving, that they're upgrading their irrigation and sprinkling systems. But I think even in their own observations, like my neighborhood in Ogden, I can walk around the neighborhood and the church house in my neighborhood had … grass [that] was largely brown last summer. But I think you could go to another neighborhood over and it was green. So there doesn't seem to be consistency. But we do know that there are conversations going on behind the scenes with the governor and state leaders, like I said.
PM: What’s at stake for the church if the lake dries up?
LL: Their global headquarters is right in Salt Lake City, and it could be downwind potentially of some massive dust storms if the lake continues to dry. And not only that, they own properties all throughout the region through their various real estate arms, they own farmland, they own commercial properties. They've made major investments in the state and in this region. So I think they do have a lot to lose.