Dream beneath the desert sky
The rivers run but soon run dry
We need new dreams tonight
(Lyrics from ‘In God’s Country’ by U2)
From the time they left the United States in 1846 to head West, the Mormons were involuntarily introduced to living in the desert. Since that time, the country has followed them West, against the recommendations of John Wesley Powell. "Powell challenged the popularly held belief that ‘rain follows the plow’—that is, that tilling the soil actually increases the annual rainfall, or that as the population grows, the moisture intensifies." And yet today, three of the fastest growing metro areas in America are Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. At the end of 2006, seven of the top ten largest cities in the country all bordered Mexico. (source) The population is shifting to the desert and is quickly running out of water.
Last week was reported that Lake Mead, the largest artificial reservoir in the country, has a 50% chance of going dry by 2021 because of increasing demand from the booming populations. (here and here) The population estimate for Las Vegas and Clark County is two million, Phoenix is four million, and greater Los Angeles is 13 million.
These three cities also happen to be some of the largest concentrations of Mormons outside of Utah. There are 83 Stakes in Arizona, 33 in Nevada, and 158 in California. Adding these to the other desert-climate states of Idaho (107), Texas (52), Utah (425), Wyoming (13), and New Mexico (14), for a total of 885, which is 1/3 of the entire church total of 2745.
With one third of the Church living in the American desert, how does this affect our attitudes towards the land? Is it even sustainable to live in a desert? With very little rain, past policies built dams on rivers to provide a water source for living and irrigating with. River flows were modified and aquatic species were threatened or extinguished. The excellent book by Marc Reisner, Cadillac Desert, states "By the late 1970’s, there were 1251 major reservoirs in California, and every significant river—save one—had been dammed at least once." (page 9). Irrigation was needed to expand into the west, hydroelectric power was the cash cow, and so dams were built by the thousands, creating "a blanket death sentence for the free-flowing rivers in sixteen states." (page 136)
Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Utah, Rand Decker, stated, "The Colorado River, already utilized at 100-plus percent, will have more demands put on it as the Southwest continues to grow. The need for a well thought out, overarching policy, including instructional and technical considerations, will also grow. Utah is, literally, right in the middle of this." (source)
But is water conservation even a high priority to members of the church who have at least 1/3 of its members living in a desert? As of 2002, Utahns were the 2nd highest per capita water users in the country while also being the 2nd driest state in the nation (next to Nevada). Additionally, "Utahns waste up to 25 to 50 percent of all the water they use outside by relying on automatic sprinkling systems, which tend to over water by about 44 percent; by planting water-consuming Kentucky bluegrass lawn, rather than native, drought-resistant grasses; and by growing gardens of water-needy types of vegetation rather than native shrubs and flowers." (source)
From the scriptures, we learn about the temporary sojourn of both the children of Israel and Lehi’s family through the desert. After eight years of being led by the Liahona through the "fertile parts of the wilderness" (1 Nephi 16:16), Lehi’s family arrived at the land of Bountiful, with "its much fruit and also wild honey; and all these things were prepared of the Lord that we might not perish." (1 Nephi 17:5) Moses provided food (Exodus 16) and water (Exodus 15:22-25 and Exodus 17:1-6) miraculously to the children of Israel during their 40 years of wandering through the desert. Is the sojourn of the church in the desert likewise only temporary? If water sources run dry, is picking up and moving an option?
Oft-quoted scriptures about the desert include "the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose" (Isaiah 35:1) and "he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord." (Isaiah 51:3) Are these scriptures speaking literally? Isn’t this scripture speaking metaphorically for Israel receiving the gospel and flourishing? Because literally speaking, the western United States is still a desert. Irrigation has made it possible to live in such a climate, but annual rainfall is still very low.
Looking away from America, Dubai, also located in a desert, is the fastest growing city in the world. With no reliable water source, they have invested in the technology of desalination plants from the ocean to provide their water. "DEWA delivers water to almost 305,000 customers across the emirate of Dubai. As the Emirate continues its vibrant progress in all spheres, DEWA meets the growing demand for water and electricity, by advanced planning, preparing the necessary groundwork and execution of its projects at the highest quality, safety and environmental standards." (source)
Latter-day Saints pioneered the settling of the desert West. What is our proposed solution for the upcoming water shortage? Are we prepared? Here is one interesting concept, based on building greenhouses over microdams. David O Mckay said, "With every progressive age of the world, intellectual, nobleminded leaders have sought a better way of living than that which was current....The Church...offers to the world the solution of all its social problems."
As Latter-day Saints, do we really believe this? If so, what is the answer? Migration?Technology? A Miracle…?
18 February 2008