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For Mormons, a perfect lawn is a godly act. But the drought is catching up with them

In June 2021, Marlene and Emron Esplin stopped watering their front lawn. Given that the Esplins live in Utah, where maintaining lush green turf is often associated with the fulfillment of a biblical prophecy, the decision to let their grass go brown was a radical act.

“I just felt like it was morally wrong to be watering our yard so much,” says Marlene who, along with her husband, is a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A month earlier, Utah’s Governor Spencer Cox had declared a state of emergency due to a record lack of precipitation and he asked the public to pray for rain. He declared a second drought-related state of emergency in April 2022.

Like the rest of the south-west, Utah is in a megadrought that started in 2000. As the second driest state in the United States behind Nevada, the unprecedented aridity has hit Utah especially hard. For the last two summers, about 90% of the state was in exceptional, extreme or severe drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. But this did not stop people in Utah – the Esplins notwithstanding – from keeping their grass green all summer long.

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For many Mormons in Utah – who make up two-thirds of the state’s population of 3 million – the concept of being a good steward is wrapped up in a pioneer nostalgia that favors an artificial, irrigated landscape over the natural desert environment. This Mormon version of Manifest Destiny is at the heart of why Utahns suck up so much municipal water as well as why the state is moving at a dangerously glacial pace to deal with the climate crisis.

It explains why Utah uses more municipal water than any state in the country, except for Idaho. And why the state has long supported a heavily subsidized water pricing system and zoning laws that encourage, if not flat-out demand, a yard full of well-tended grass.

When trying to explain the near-religious devotion to irrigated landscapes, Mormons often quote a verse from the Old Testament (Isaiah 35:1-2) that inspired their 19th-century pioneer ancestors who settled in Utah: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”

While many Mormons have historically viewed “making the desert bloom” as a virtuous act, some environmentalists – both inside and outside the church – argue that this literal interpretation of the biblical prophecy is misguided, especially as the south-west grapples with the dire threats of climate change.

“It is total insanity that the Great Salt Lake is drying up and we are using hundreds of thousands of acre feet of treated culinary water to irrigate the totally useless crop of Kentucky bluegrass,” Zach Frankel, executive director of Utah Rivers Council, said of the thirsty emerald green turf that is the preferred lawn in Utah. Frankel, who is not Mormon, believes well-meaning Latter-day Saints have been co-opted by politicians and profit-hungry developers to maintain thirsty lawns in order to justify the need for more water projects

“The grass lawn is not in anyone’s best interest except for those at the Utah state house who are seeking billions of dollars in unnecessary spending,” says Frankel.

Frankel and others are lobbying Utah government leaders to enact aggressive water conservation policies before it is too late. But what may ultimately carry the most weight are the efforts by Latter-day Saints like the Esplins who are seeking a paradigm shift in their community to undo the irrigation mentality. They want to convince fellow Mormons that the desert is already beautiful and has a divinely created ecological wisdom all its own.

For Marlene and Emron, both professors at Brigham Young University who live in a historic, tree-lined neighborhood in Provo, 45 miles south of Salt Lake City, letting their lawn die was an expression of their faith. “I want to be a better Christian steward of the place where I live,” says Marlene.

“Why not let the desert bloom as a desert?”

***

The first Mormons arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. After their leader Joseph Smith was killed by a mob in Illinois three years earlier, the “saints”, as they called themselves, traveled some 1,300 miles across the western frontier in search of a home where they could practice their religion free from persecution. Even though the Salt Lake Valley was a semi-arid desert, it abutted the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains and offered promising opportunities for irrigating crops. The Mormon leader, Brigham Young, announced that the saints had finally arrived in their prophesied promised land. And one of the first orders of business was to dig an irrigation ditch along a creek so they could start farming.

“Mormons map themselves on to Old Testament narratives because they feel similar to the Israelites who were chased through the wilderness fleeing oppression until they found their promised land,” says George Handley, a Mormon professor at Brigham Young University and member of the Provo city council.

In addition to their faith, the Mormons also brought a European pastoral aesthetic common among New World colonizers that revolved around a green Garden of Eden and rejected the desert plants. As Mormons seized homelands and water resources from the region’s Indigenous people, the religious community grew rapidly, as did their irrigation canals.

Unlike other European immigrants colonizing the west, the Mormons were not looking for gold or other material riches. They were on a mission to establish their holy land, a place called Zion. By 1865, approximately 65,000 Mormons had settled in Utah. And they had built some 1,000 miles of canals to irrigate nearly 150,000 acres of semi-arid farmland. It was a triumph of Manifest Destiny unlike anything else in the American west.

“These were people who came out of tremendous suffering,” says Handley. “And for many decades they were vulnerable to starvation because of the harsh environmental conditions. Pulling through that period successfully created a kind of a catapult. The positive momentum was so strong that it seemed crazy to put the brakes on any of it.”

In 1902, this momentum was channeled into the creation of the US Bureau of Reclamation that would ultimately oversee the construction of 600 dam projects and the transformation of the west. As Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert, the agency’s ambitious irrigation program was “based on Mormon experience, guided by Mormon laws, run largely by Mormons”.

Utah grew rapidly after the second world war, and farmland was converted to sprawling suburbs. The population of Salt Lake City boomed, as did the other communities along the Wasatch Front, an 80-mile strip at the base of the mountains stretching from Ogden on the north to Provo on the south. Canals that were originally built to support agriculture were adapted to residential use. This widespread “secondary water” canal system that is unique to Utah allows untreated water to be piped into communities expressly for the purpose of irrigating lawns. Users now pay a flat annual fee of $250 on average for an unlimited and unregulated supply of water.

Over the last two decades, as megadrought took hold in the south-west, arid states such as California, Nevada and Arizona, have been implementing increasingly aggressive conservation measures. Las Vegas, Phoenix and Los Angeles budget millions of dollars to pay residents to pull out their lawns while water cops patrol neighborhood streets to make sure everyone is following the rules. But until last summer, few conservation measures were implemented in Utah.

“Mormons believe that if there is a problem, God will provide,” says Rich Ingebretsen, a great-grandson of Brigham Young and founder of the non-profit Glen Canyon Institute. “That is why Governor Cox asked everyone to pray for rain. The attitude has always been that if we pray and pay our tithing to the church, then we don’t need to save the Earth because God will save it for us. I have heard this so many times.”

***

Last June, Mormon church headquarters issued an “official statement” on water conservation. “The Church is working to reduce water use in all our buildings and facilities, including exterior landscaping,” stated a press release. The release said that in some cases landscaping would be permitted to turn brown or go dormant. It also encouraged others to reduce their water use.

When recently asked for examples of properties where lawns had been allowed to turn brown, the Mormon church communication office declined to comment.

Ingebretsen says he has observed more Latter-day Saints members in recent years who are concerned about climate crisis and have started to cut back on watering their lawns. But he is disappointed at how Mormon church leadership has not taken aggressive steps to set a public example on water conservation.

“It is hard to miss the fact that every LDS church along the Wasatch Front has wall to wall Kentucky bluegrass,” says Zach Frankel. “And they over-water it, flooding streets and sidewalks. I have never seen an LDS church in Utah with xeriscape landscaping.”

Meanwhile, water cutbacks to farmers in rural Utah over the last several years have left many struggling to stay afloat financially as their fields lie fallow. Even though agriculture claims 70% of Utah’s water supply, the megadrought has hit farmers much harder than suburban homeowners.

The Utah legislature passed at least a dozen water conservation measures last spring, signaling a bipartisan desire to finally address drought impacts. And while one new law requires the installation of meters to monitor secondary water use, it does not require placing limits on the amount of water being used by the state’s more than 200,000 secondary water customers.

Utah has yet to implement the most effective tool for conserving municipal water – raising the price – which remains low because it’s subsidized by water districts that levy property taxes based on home values. According to data from the Utah Rivers Council, residents in Utah cities pay half of what residents of Las Vegas or Denver do for 25,000 gallons of water. And people living in Seattle, San Diego or Tucson pay four times what Utahns spend for that amount of water.

The pricing structure also seems to encourage Utahns, regardless of income, to use a lot of water – 178 gallons a person a day, nearly double the national average. And it gives tax exempt entities such as the Mormon church a huge price break.

Utah’s population is predicted to grow to 5.5 million people by 2050. Water companies and some state politicians insist various multibillion-dollar development projects are required to meet future demand.

Environmentalists argue there is easily enough water to meet Utah’s future needs if people would just stop wasting it on ornamental turf. They point to the success of southern Nevada, which decreased its water use over a period of 12 years by 32bn gallons even as it accommodated half a million new residents, primarily by paying people to rip out their lawns.

But removing turf in the Mormon holy land is easier said than done. “We have to adapt our aesthetic tastes to something more in balance with the natural environment,” says George Handley.

The elaborately landscaped Temple Square in Salt Lake City where the Mormon church headquarters is located has taken initial steps in that direction. Temple Square gardens cover approximately 35 acres and often showcase hundreds of flower beds and other plants from across the world. “For the first time in our history we pulled back irrigation this summer on some of our traditional flower displays,” says landscape manager Jay Warnick. “In a previous era, allowing flowers to wilt would have been unthinkable.”

As for the Esplins, they completely deprived their front lawn of water for the second summer in a row and now it is good and dead. A patchwork of dried yellow grass is interspersed with bare soil and the occasional clumps of weeds. Curious neighbors passing by have asked what is going on.

The Esplins have recently taken advantage of a design subsidy program and met with a landscape architect. They will install drought-tolerant plants, Dutch clover for ground cover and a drip irrigation system as their budget permits.

Latter-day Saints embracing this push toward environmental sustainability find themselves in a fight for survival that is different from the Mormon pioneers who first arrived in Zion. But today’s struggle will require that same extraordinary level of community cooperation in order to succeed.

“I have anxiety that these resources I take for granted won’t be available for my children and grandchildren,” says Marlene, a mother of five. “I want to live in a way that doesn’t gobble up their future.”

Her 17-year old son Moses hopes other adults will follow his parents’ example. “Grass is stupid,” he says. “We live in a desert.”