Lake Powell hits a record-low amid mega-monsoon

Plus: The Mormon Church outbids Bill Gates on Washington farmland

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We’ve got good news and bad news to report regarding the big aridification of the West this week. Let’s start with the good: After a two-year hiatus, the monsoon has returned to much of the Southwest, bringing huge rains with it. Tucson’s arroyos are running full and the Sonoran desert is getting positively lush. Multiple highways in Western Colorado were closed due to debris flows and flash floods. And a lot of farmers, especially those who lost ditch water early, are breathing a huge sigh of relief as, we suspect, are their crops.

The monsoon days are the best time of year in the desert Southwest. They always start out clear and hot and the mercury can shoot up into the triple digits before the cobalt clouds arrive, piled miles high in the sky. The first big raindrops bring the petrichor—the scent of blood and iron—followed by the deluge, followed by muddy water crashing through arroyos that were bone-dry just a moment earlier. Then the rain subsides, always just before sunset it seems, leaving the air crisp and clean. And the sun bursts through the clouds, setting the sky ablaze.

But all of that moisture falling from the sky isn’t enough to bust the drought, yet, nor can it save Lake Powell, which dropped this weekend to its lowest level since 1969 (when it was still filling up). Lake Powell’s growing bathtub ring is a visual indicator not only of the lake’s level, but also of the aridity of much of the West.

Powell’s downward slide began in 1999, falling 140 feet in just six years and bottomed out—for the time being—during the spring of 2005, before a substantial runoff that year bounced levels back up. But even the huge water year of 2011 was not enough for a full recovery. In the decade since, the level has crashed by 100 feet, in spite of healthy snowfall in 2019, bringing the lake to where it is now: The dam’s hydropower generating capacity is diminished, boat-ramps are rendered unusable, and the Bureau of Reclamation is desperately trying to shore up levels by releasing extra water from upstream reservoirs.

But the worst part of it all is what the shrinkage says about the health of the Upper Colorado River Watershed: it isn’t so good. And it will take more than one good monsoon to bring it back.

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The News: A company owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints outbids a Bill Gates company on an 18,000-acre piece of farmland in southeastern Washington, raising eyebrows and a few hackles. 

The Context: The Church is not planning on moving its central headquarters from Utah to the Columbia River country. They’re just buying up more property, which is nothing new: They already own oodles of land, in both urban and rural areas, across the United States. 

This land exchange is rooted in a criminal case, in which Toby Easterday, the owner of Easterday Farms, pleaded guilty to wire fraud for billing Tyson Foods hundreds of millions of dollars to feed cattle that didn’t exist. Easterday went bankrupt and the land was put on the auction block. The leading bidders were 100C LLC and Farmland Reserve, both of which have extensive holdings in the region, with Farmland Reserve putting up the winning, $209-million bid. 

It might not have garnered much attention except that 100C LLC is part of Bill Gates’ empire, and Farmland Reserve is owned by the Mormon Church. That raised suspicions—and provided fodder for conspiracy theories. Was Gates accruing land in order to build mass microchip injection facilities? Was the Church looking to establish a Northwest homeland? 

The answer? No. There’s nothing sinister going on here aside from a couple of very wealthy entities forking out massive sums to buy huge tracts of land—which is a bit sinister in itself. Through various entities, Bill Gates has gone on a land-shopping spree in recent years, making him one of the nation’s top owners of farmland. The Mormon Church’s real estate arms have been buying up property for at least seven decades, and own hundreds of thousands of acres nationwide. 

The Church’s sizable farmland holdings in the Northwest mostly are operated by AgriNorthwest, a subsidiary of Farmland Reserve, which is a subsidiary of AgReserves. AgReserves owns the 295,000-acre Deseret Ranches in Florida, which they started in the 1950s, along with hundreds of thousands of acres across the U.S., in Latin America, and even in Europe. The company is not shy about making big purchases. In 2014 it bought up 380,000 acres of Florida timberland in one fell swoop, and in 2004 purchased 88,000 acres of farmland in Nebraska. AgReserves’ is headquartered in City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City, a massive, upscale mall developed and owned by, yes, the Mormon Church.

Chances are the Church owns property near you, too. 

As of 2012, when I wrote a story on the Mormon Church’s influence on Utah’s economy, the Church’s various real estate branches—including Property Reserve and Suburban Land Reserve—owned at least 200 parcels in Salt Lake County, valued at $340 million at the time (surely that has doubled by now). They own a big chunk of land surrounding the temple in downtown Ogden and 154 parcels of mostly farmland amid suburbia in Maricopa County, Arizona. 

So what gives? Betsy Gaines Quammen, author of American Zion: Cliven Bundy, God, & Public Lands in the West, told OPB this urge to acquire land is baked into the Mormon culture and religion and is a way of preparing for future days of food and water shortages. This explains why so many of the purchases are for working farm and ranch land, most of which the Church keeps in production—they have 45,000 cattle on Deseret Ranch. 

The same OPB story suggests that Gates is similarly motivated, getting his hands on fertile farmland before the climate crisis upends everything. 

But there’s a development side of the equation, too. The Church is partnering with a Florida developer to build a 37,000-home planned community on Deseret Ranch, it spearheaded the City Creek development in Salt Lake City, and it has done development in the Phoenix area, as well. Gates reportedly purchased nearly 25,000 acres in Buckeye, a sprawling suburb of Phoenix (near where, it so happens, the Mormon Church also owns land), which he intends to develop as a “smart city.”

Rather than preparing for latter days, this appears to be just plain old capitalism.

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