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Great Salt Lake in Utah hit a record low water level for second time in less than a year

Great Salt Lake water levels hit all-time low
Great Salt Lake water levels hit all-time low amidst western drought 06:07

Kayaker Brian Footen is using a 360 degree camera to capture a devastating sight: the diminishing size of 
Utah's Great Salt Lake.

Footen, who works for a company called Earthviews that creates maps of aquatic and terrestrial environments, noticed how much conditions have worsened.

"So 30 years ago, we would not have been over there along the side of the mountain, and there would have been a shoreline, actually, not a lake bed," Footen told CBS News' John Blackstone.

Three decades ago, the Great Salt Lake covered about 3,000 square miles. Now, at its lowest level ever recorded, it covers less than a thousand. The decline has led to air quality issues in the midst of historic drought conditions.

"All the minerals from the mountains, all the heavy metals from the mountains have been coming into this lake for thousands of years, and if the lake bottom is completely dry, then the wind picks up and creates dust storms that carry those heavy metals into the air and spread them around to urban areas like Salt Lake City," Footen said.

To calculate how severe those dust storms could be, scientists from the University of Utah biked across miles of land that was once underwater.

"The dust that comes off the lake is very visual," said Dr. Kevin Perry, a professor from the University of Utah. "You can see this wall of dust and it reduces the visibility. And people are very concerned about what might be in the dust that they're breathing."

To measure what might be in the dust, Perry uses an instrument that mimics a dust storm.

"What that does is, it creates a swirling wind inside this chamber that stimulates wind speeds of up to about 50 miles per hour," Perry said.

What Perry discovered has raised serious health concerns for millions who live in the Salt Lake City region.

"I was looking at heavy metals and unfortunately we found very high concentrations of arsenic in the soil," he said. "And arsenic is concerning for a variety of reasons. It can lead to lung cancer, skin cancer, bladder cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes."

Preventing arsenic-contaminated dust storms requires getting more water into the Great Salt Lake. But that's no easy feat when Utah is in a megadrought, with more than 20 years of below average precipitation.

Joel Ferry runs a farm along the Bear River. For five generations, his family has been using water from the river to grow food and raise cattle.

"We have water rights to take that water," Ferry said. "And so what we try to do is we say, 'Let's reduce the amount of water that we're taking out of the Bear by doing irrigation efficiency practices.'"

Efficiency is necessary since Ferry's water allocation was cut by 30% last year. So he installed drip irrigation for some of his crops. Meanwhile, other fields have been carefully leveled to make better use of flood irrigation.

Ferry's commitment to saving water had led him to a new career. He said he was asked by Gov. Spencer Cox to serve as the executive director of the Department of Natural Resources. In his role, Ferry will be tasked with convincing farmers, industry and city dwellers in Utah to understand the importance of water conservation.

"We've got to get we've got to figure this out," he said. "It's not going to be cheap, but there are solutions, and we're creative."

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