Will Mormons Save The Great Salt Lake?

Via The Washington Post, an interesting look at the convergence of religion, conservation, and water:

Overuse of water compounded by a decades-long Western megadrought threatens the survival of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. North America’s largest saline lake has lost 73 percent of its water and 60 percent of its surface area compared with its average natural level, with record lows the past two years.

A recent report warns that the lake is “on track to disappear in five years” unless the state legislature takes “emergency measures.” Reversing the decline will require cutting water use by up to 50 percent throughout the Great Salt Lake watershed.

“The choices we make over the next few months will affect our state and ecosystems throughout the West for decades to come,” nearly three dozen scientists and conservationists sum up in the report. 

The lake is an essential habitat to brine shrimp and 10 million migrating birds, and supports roughly 9,000 local jobs and $2.5 billion of economic activity. Even more daunting is the public health crisis linked to falling lake levels. The lake bed is full of heavy metals and pollutants accumulated through generations of human activities including coal burning, mining, agriculture and urban runoff.

When the dry bed turns to dust, even minor gusts could carry these leftover toxins to the lungs of regional residents, potentially causing or intensifying respiratory illnesses and other conditions. The pollutants have been linked to asthma, heart disease, reproductive dysfunction and cognitive impairment.

Some fantasize that the crisis can be resolved through cloud seeding, groundwater extraction, tree-thinning in mountain forests to increase runoff, or even building pipelines from the Pacific Ocean. But these are pipe (or pipeline) dreams. Only the immediate and severe reductions in water use from the rivers and creeks that feed the lake will save this resource.

Reductions will hit agriculture the hardest, because farms use most of the water. Roughly 85 percent of Utah’s water goes to agriculture — the vast majority to a single crop: alfalfa, used to feed livestock. Though nearly 70 percent of Utah’s diverted water goes to alfalfa and hay, the crops account for only 0.2 percent of the state’s gross domestic product.

Conservative lawmakers — many of them Mormons, as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are often called — are resisting the needed change, urged on primarily by Mormon farmers. Their attitude neglects a deep tradition of environmental stewardship.

When pioneer-era Mormons settled the Great Salt Lake Valley in the 1840s, they saw the region as a gift from God — a promised land for their people and refuge from years of persecution. They brought the desert to life through mastery of irrigation: dams, canals and ditches. But they would have been horrified by the use of a single thirsty crop for the mass-production of livestock. Excessive meat consumption is explicitly forbidden in Mormon doctrine.

Known to abstain from drugs and alcohol, Mormons are less attentive to the section of their scripture that says meat should be eaten “sparingly … only in times of winter, or of cold, or famine.” An ecological crisis driven by a single feed crop for animal protein proves the foresight of this teaching. Ben Abbott, a Brigham Young University ecologist and a devout Mormon, calls it “a shockingly prophetic directive” — a directive many modern Mormons conveniently overlook.

“It would be too bad to sacrifice the Great Salt Lake because we have a preference for a particular kind of fast food,” Abbott said.

The early church took conservation seriously. The prophet Brigham Young warned against killing bison unless absolutely necessary for food. A conservation disaster — the destruction of America’s great buffalo herd — might have been averted if the Mormon teachings had held sway among all Western settlers.

Somewhere along the way, Mormon culture devolved from embracing stewardship of the land to accepting nearly unfettered development. Mormon conservatism blocks appropriate zoning of urban expansion and precludes meaningful restrictions on water use. Politically, Utah is not equipped to tell farmers and developers what to do — yet the Great Salt Lake might live or die based on this spring’s legislative session.

The best solution at this point is the simplest one: buy the water rights from enough Utah farmers to stabilize the lake. This would honor private property rights that are so important to Western conservatives, while moving quickly to save a priceless resource. A prosperous state pioneered by conservationist Mormons, Utah can afford this answer and learn to love it, too.

Abbott, lead author of the dire report, and others suggest that the destiny of Mormons is to care for this vast, beautiful, fragile land — not to drink it dry and reduce it to toxic dust. The pioneering people who sought refuge in the valley of the Great Salt Lake left a legacy that can help save the West from its own success. The environmental crisis unfolding at the Great Salt Lake is a microcosm of the climate realities of the entire region, where the Mormon story has sown both the seeds of a crisis and of a solution.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 15th, 2023 at 5:52 am and is filed under Great Salt Lake, United States.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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