Mormons, Irrigation, and Community
Data point # 1:
The first Mormon pioneers came into the Great Salt Lake valley on July 22, 1847. The third week of July is late in the season to plant a crop, so they immediately began to plow in preparation for planting, but their wooden plowshares broke on the hardened soil. Consequently, they built a small dam and diverted the water from city creek onto the plot of earth they had selected. When Brigham Young descended Emigration canyon two days later, on July 24, there were already several acres of potatoes and turnips under cultivation on the ground that is now between State Street and 2nd East and 2nd and 3rd South. They understood, without having to discuss it, that their success depended on their cooperative effort. They would survive together, or they wouldn’t survive at all.
They followed this pattern in the numerous other settlements they built in the Mormon corridor. One of the first orders of business was to dam the stream at the mouth of the canyon in order to save the snowmelt and runoff so they could use the water as a community resource to irrigate crops, gardens, and orchards. It didn’t enter anyone’s mind that the water might be private property, but instead it was universally understood that the system of dams, canals, and ditches which made the water available was the result of the collective knowledge and effort of the group, and that the water was to be shared. We still have a reminder of this in the way people in rural Utah towns talk about “the water turn”. One doesn’t think of water as a personal possession; one takes one’s turn.
Data point # 2:
For centuries, the sockeye salmon has been swimming upstream to spawn in Idaho’s Salmon River. It is 900 river miles from the saltwater of the Pacific to the headwaters of the Salmon. Redfish Lake, high in central Idaho’s mountains, was named for this gorgeous, brightly-colored Onchorhynchus nerka which passes through the lake to the spawning grounds upstream.
As recently as 50 years ago, tens of thousands of sockeye completed the journey upstream and spawned successfully, thus ensuring another generation. But anadromous species like salmon are especially susceptible to habitat degradation. Their eggs need the right kind of gravel and flowing, oxygenated water in order to hatch. In 2003, the Idaho Division of Natural Resources said that only three (3) sockeye made it to the spawning beds. The DNR reported, in typical bureaucrat-ese, that the upper Salmon River had been “dewatered”. A landowner who had legal water rights had diverted the entire stream onto his field of grass hay. The landowner got another $500 worth of low quality hay, and in exchange, the wild Idaho sockeye is gone, and it’s gone for good.
It is worth asking ourselves how we got to this point. How did we ever get the idea that it is good and right for somebody to own 300 feet of a 900 mile river, and that the owner can do whatever he wants with the river, including strip-mining the gravel off the dry streambed? You don’t have to be a tree-hugging environmentalist to see the problem. Look at it from purely a dollars and cents standpoint. When the farmer dried up the stream where the fish were trying to spawn, he put people downstream out of business. The outfitters and fishing guides, the marinas, the bait and tackle shops, manufacturers of boats, lifejackets, rods and reels, they all suffered a loss of income. That means that the communities along the river also were adversely effected. The girl scout cookies went unsold, the little league team went unsponsored, the taxes and license fees went uncollected. Even the most ardent proponent of laissez-faire has to recognize that our market economy failed to accurately place a value on the water in the upper Salmon River basin.
One of the lessons that emerges quite clearly from the Book of Mormon is that we don’t thrive as individuals, but as societies. There is no such thing in the Book of Mormon as a righteous, prosperous individual surrounded by the poor. The blessings of well-being and prosperity are bestowed upon groups and communities, and not upon individuals. Our well-being as individuals depends, more than anything else, upon being part of a society where people recognize their dependence upon one another, esteem their neighbors as themselves and where people try to extend their blessings to others among whom they live. “For Zion must increase in beauty…; her borders must be enlarged, her stakes must be strengthened…” (D&C 82:14) Being part of Zion means recognizing the people who live downstream as brothers and sisters, and taking due regard for them.