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Utah’s Great Salt Lake is getting smaller.

“It’s been shrinking at about a half a foot per decade,” says Kevin Perry, a researcher at the University of Utah.

He says the main problem is all the water that’s being diverted from the lake to irrigate farmland and for other uses.

A major drought in Utah is making the problem worse. And droughts are expected to grow more common as the climate continues to warm.

As the lake recedes, more of the lakebed is exposed and dries out over time. About 750 square miles of bare, cracked land now surround the water.

Much of this exposed lakebed is covered by a hardened crust of clay-rich soil and salt. But in areas without a crust, or where that crust is degraded, wind can kick up loose dirt into dust storms.

“The longer the lakebed is exposed, the more likely that crust is to degrade over time, and the more frequent those dust storms are likely to become,” Perry says.

He says the dust plumes contain particles that are harmful to breathe and that can contribute to local air pollution.

So to protect people’s lungs, Perry says it’s important to keep enough water flowing into the Great Salt Lake to prevent it from shrinking even more. 

Reporting credit: Sarah Kennedy/ChavoBart Digital Media