LDS Church starts pilot program for waterwise sustainability at Utah church buildings
Utah is the second-driest state in the U.S. and also headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with more than 2 million members within the state’s borders.
In a follow-up to water conservation plans announced earlier this year by Bishop W. Christopher Waddell, first counselor in the Presiding Bishopric, at the Wallace Stegner Symposium at the University of Utah, six meetinghouses have had landscape makeovers with another in the planning stage as part of a pilot program.
According to the church, the goal with these makeovers is to significantly decrease water usage by reducing grass lawns, improving irrigation systems and adding drought-tolerant, waterwise and native plants around select houses of worship. Church properties in Castle Dale, Clearfield, Ogden, Salt Lake City and St. George have already been worked on, with Lehi next in the pilot program.
Utah has 5,412 congregations, with approximately two in each building, making about 2,700 church buildings statewide.
“Water conservation in this state is a critical issue for all of us. And it’s certainly something the church is concerned about,” said Jenica Sedgwick, the church’s sustainability manager, in a press release. “It’s an important part of our broader sustainability efforts, especially with concerns regarding the water levels of the Great Salt Lake.”
Data gathered through the pilot project will be reviewed for the next two years and used to influence future church actions.
“We have more projects coming, so we’ll be continually learning as we study which water conservation and sustainable landscape practices are most effective, the cost of those and what’s possible,” Sedgwick said. “The outcomes of these pilots, along with other ongoing projects, will inform what we do in the future.”
Among the scope of the church meetinghouse projects has been consideration of enhanced aesthetics, improved habitat for pollinators, a reduced heat island effect and better building accessibility through added walkways, the church’s release said.
Landscapers working on a meetinghouse in Ogden are creating decorative dry-set walls to connect the grounds to the surrounding mountains.
“This pilot program gives us the opportunity to do something that’s new, different,” said Jim Puffer, one of the church’s landscape contractors, in the release. “It’s going to save a lot of water. It’s going to save a lot of maintenance. The landscapes are just super clean. I’m hopeful that maybe (my own church) building, as well as others in the area, can be relandscaped this same way so that it just brings a lot more pride to our neighborhoods and to our community.”
Tommy Carter, another landscape contractor working on the meetinghouse landscaping in Castle Dale, said the project aligns with religious instruction to care for the planet.
“I appreciate what the church is trying to do because we’re here to take care of what God has given us,” Carter said in the release. “The church is basically trying to set that example.”
According to the church, lawns at new meetinghouses in Utah typically comprise no more than 35% of the landscape area, with the remainder covered by mulch, plants and trees. Elsewhere, the church’s current practice is to create a waterwise landscape relevant to the water availability in other regions. In southern Nevada, for example, lawn is being removed completely.
“We’re trying to find that sweet spot” between conservation, beauty and neighborhood fit, said David Wright, a landscape architect with the church’s Meetinghouse Facilities Department. “How can we be conservation-minded and still have a nice, attractive building that’s complementary to the neighborhood? Ultimately, we would like to fit within the neighborhood and not be too over-the-top where we’re shocking the neighbors. We want to do something that’s acceptable.”
The church says its Presiding Bishopric has made concerted efforts over the years to align the faith’s sustainability practices more closely with its doctrine of earthly stewardship, which stresses caring for the earth, being wise stewards over it and preserving it for future generations. In the case of this pilot project, the goal is to gain a greater understanding of the best choices to landscape church buildings — especially those in arid climates.
“When it comes to taking care of the earth, we cannot afford to think only of today,” Bishop L. Todd Budge, second counselor, said at Utah Valley University in October 2022. “The consequences of our actions, for better or worse, accumulate into the future and are sometimes felt only generations later. Stewardship requires feet and hands at work in the present with a gaze fixed on the future.”
At a gathering at the University of Utah this past March, Waddell said that though the church’s efforts have not been perfect, “there is a continual and ongoing churchwide effort to improve our care of natural resources, including the implementation of best practices and available technology to improve our water efficiency.”
At a conference in Brazil in October, Bishop Gérald Caussé, presiding bishop of the church, listed water conservation through waterwise landscaping as one of the church’s six major sustainability priorities.
At the church’s October 2022 general conference, Caussé taught Latter-day Saints that “care of the earth and of our natural environment is a sacred responsibility entrusted to us by God, which should fill us with a deep sense of duty and humility. It is also an integral component of our discipleship.”
“At the end of this mortal existence,” Caussé said, “the Master will ask us to give an account for our sacred stewardship, including how we have cared for His creations.”