The surface of Utah's Great Salt Lake dropped to its lowest recorded level this July.
Researchers and politicians are worried about serious threats to animals and people who live near it.
The nearby city of Salt Lake City is already facing dust storms. Experts fear these storms, which blow dirt into the air, could get worse.
Scientist Kevin Perry has studied the lake for years. He said, "To save the Great Salt Lake, so that we don't become Dust Lake City, is to make a…choice that the lake is valuable and that the lake needs to have water put into it."
For years, water that would have gone to the lake has been used for drinking water, industry and agriculture. In addition, an ongoing drought – a long period of time with not enough rain - has reduced the lake’s water level.
On July 3, U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) said that the surface of the lake fell to the lowest level since records began in 1847. Water levels are expected to decrease further until the autumn or early winter.
The lake now contains about one-fourth of the water it contained when it was at its highest level in 1987.
The lake has lost nearly half its average surface area. This means about 2,000 square kilometers of lakebed have been exposed.
Dried out earth that used to be underwater has created dust clouds that contain calcium, sulfur and arsenic. Arsenic is an element linked to cancer and developmental problems in unborn babies. Exposed lakebed also has chemicals left over from copper and silver mining.
Perry told the Reuters news agency, "If you breathe that dust over an extended period of time, like decades or longer, then it can lead to increases in different types of cancer...cardiovascular disease, diabetes and such."
People are not the only ones at risk. Underwater reef-like structures are home to a micro-organism that is food for brine shrimp, which are an important food for birds. But the reef-like structures dry out and turn gray when exposed to air.
An estimated 10 million birds of more than 330 species travel through or live at the lake each year, said Max Malmquist. He is with the National Audubon Society, an environmental group.
The shrimp are also harvested and are valued at millions of dollars. Officials estimate that economic activity from the lake is worth up to $2 billion each year.
Utah Governor Spencer Cox signed 11 new laws dealing with water policy in the last lawmaking season, or legislative session. Long-term answers will require agriculture, industry, and cities to use less water.
Utah State Representative Tim Hawkes said there is political pressure to do something.
"As we hit these new record lows, we start to run the risk that all of those values that we derive from the Great Salt Lake could be at risk," he said.
I’m Ashley Thompson.
Nathan Frandino reported on this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
lakebed – n. the floor or bottom of a lake
expose – v. to leave (something) without covering or protection
reef – n. a long line of rocks or coral or a high area of sand near the surface of the water in the ocean
brine shrimp – n. a small kind of shrimp that live in salt lakes
species – n. biology : a group of animals or plants that are similar and can produce young animals or plants : a group of related animals or plants that is smaller than a genus
derive – v. to take or get (something) from (something else); to have something as a source : to come from something