A canal that ferries water from the LDS Church to the Great Salt Lake. Photo: Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News
A canal that ferries water from the LDS Church to the Great Salt Lake. Photo: Ben Winslow, FOX 13 News

This story has been updated:

SALT LAKE CITY — The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a major property owner in the state of Utah, has donated a massive amount of water shares to the Great Salt Lake.

Utah's Department of Natural Resources confirmed to FOX 13 News the faith group donated 5,700 water shares to the lake.

"Permanently!" DNR Executive Director Joel Ferry exclaimed in an interview on Wednesday. "So this is just over 20,000 acre feet. Year after year, it will be going to the Great Salt Lake."

It's the equivalent size of Little Dell Reservoir and it will be solely for the lake and in perpetuity, the agency said. The water was previously used for agriculture by the Church and FOX 13 News is told it is valued at around $6 million.

"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 a statement announcing the donation.

Lynn de Freitas, the executive director of the environmental group Friends of Great Salt Lake, praised the Church for its donation.

"It’s a blessing and it certainly is an inspiration," she said Wednesday. "It's a start and it's not the only contribution we should expect to be made. I think collectively, cumulatively as a community, we should be able to be on the right track to move forward."

The Great Salt Lake last year hit its lowest point in recorded history as a result of water diversion, drought and a changing climate. It presents an existential threat to northern Utah, with toxic dust storms, reduced snowpack and harms to public health and wildlife. Political leaders in the state have reacted with alarm, passing water conservation bills and spending nearly $1 billion over the past two years.

But this past legislative session, environmental groups said that while lawmakers took huge steps for the long-term viability of the lake, they did not do enough in the short term to get water into the Great Salt Lake. Bills that would have done exactly that failed to pass and it was criticized as a "missed opportunity." A major bill passed in 2022 created a multi-million dollar trust run by the Audubon Society and The Nature Conservancy with the goal of buying or leasing water rights for the lake itself.

The donation will be managed by that trust, Ferry said. Negotiations are under way with others who have expressed interest in donating water shares or leasing them to the trust.

"People are approaching us," Ferry told FOX 13 News. "Absolutely. There is a lot of interest."

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall thanked the Church for its donation in a post on Twitter. In a statement to FOX 13 News, House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who has personally championed bills to save the Great Salt Lake, said he was thrilled with the announcement.

"The donation from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is beyond incredible and much appreciated," the Speaker said. "Saving the Great Salt Lake and enacting greater conservation practices is a statewide effort that requires commitment from all Utahns – individuals, businesses, and organizations. We are grateful for the Church’s willingness to do their part to help Utah’s water supply for years to come."

Governor Spencer Cox also called it significant.

"This announcement is one of the first big dominoes that will help us make sure we preserve and save the lake. It also helps we’re setting a record today on snowpack in the state of Utah. On March 15, we’ve never had more water and snowpack than we have now. A lot of that is going to the Great Salt Lake," he told FOX 13 News.

But even with the phenomenal snowpack, more conservation efforts will need to be taken to protect the lake.

"This is a good start and we’re excited to see the Church taking this issue seriously by providing exactly what we need — water to the lake— but this is just a first step," said Chandler Rosenberg with the environmental group Save Our Great Salt Lake. "This donation of 20,000 [acre feet] represents 2% of the additional 1,000,000 [acre feet] required to maintain a healthy Great Salt Lake elevation level of 4,198 ft. We still have a long way to go, and we hope to see continued action from the Church through these critical next few years."

Fox 13 Reporter
Ben Winslow is FOX 13's reporter on Capitol Hill covering a wide variety of topics including politics, polygamy, vice and courts. He has been in the news business in Utah for more than 20 years now, working in radio, newspaper, television and digital news. Winslow has received numerous honors for his reporting, including a national Edward R. Murrow award; the Religion Newswriters Association Local TV News Report of the Year; the Utah Broadcaster's Association and the Society of Professional Journalists. Readers of Salt Lake City Weekly and Q Salt Lake have named him their "Best TV news reporter" for many years now. He co-hosts "Utah Booze News: An Alcohol Policy Podcast," covering the state's often confusing and quirky liquor laws. Winslow is also known for his very active Twitter account keeping Utahns up-to-date on important news.

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