The $383 Million Plan to Save California's Artificial Desert 'Sea'

Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

Picture a beach next to a blue lake under the bright California skies, its water twinkling as the sun catches gentle waves, and birds cruising on the thermals above. As you walk towards the lake, you see that the water levels are low, leaving behind cracked and dry brown mud below the white beach. When you reach what looks like sand from afar, your feet make a crunching sound. You realize it's thousands—no, millions—of bones snapping beneath your sneakers, from fish that were washed ashore, too many for even the birds or wild animals to consume. Wind blows toxic dust into the air from the shoreline, a sulphury smell rises up from the lake, and you realize why the shore is littered with rusted, broken, abandoned structures, and the only human here is you. But if you squint, you could see what it once was—and what it could be again.

This is the Salton Sea.

abandoned tire and recliner at salton sea shore
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

In December, it will receive its final water transfer from the Colorado River, its only lifeline. After that, it will begin to dry up. Left to its own devices, it would disappear completely. But the state of California plans to help it survive: It's investing $383 million over the next decade to save the Salton Sea—in much reduced form.

This fake lake was created by accident, is heavily polluted, and can't survive on its own. Why bother to save this strange place?

Because not saving it would be even worse.

 
 

Located southeast of Los Angeles and directly south of Joshua Tree National Park, the sea is an artificial replacement of an ancient natural lake called Cahuilla. The lake appeared and disappeared over the millennia at intervals of 400 or 500 years depending on how much water it received from the Colorado River, writes George Kennan in his 1917 book The Salton Sea; an account of Harriman's fight with the Colorado River.

The native Cahuilla Indians told Kennan that the lake, located 232 feet below sea level, would periodically fill with water, turning the region into a useful wetland. At its fullest, it covered 2000 square miles and was 300 feet deep. But then it would slowly evaporate in the burning desert sun, its waning waters too salinated by naturally concentrated salts in the landscape to be of use to the Cahuilla. From at least 1540 to 1905, it was completely dry, as many weary '49ers, headed to California during the Gold Rush, could attest.

In 1900, the California Development Company, bankrolled by Harriman's railroad, brought irrigation to the desert. It diverted the Colorado River's water to the Imperial Valley, which sits directly south of the Salton Sea near the U.S.-Mexico border.

It was a bold, impetuous move—and one that paid off. Irrigation canals turned the desert fertile by providing water for farmers. "If anyone had then ventured to predict that this dried-up bed of the Gulf of California, this hot, sterile, and apparently irreclaimable desert would eventually become a beautiful, cultivated valley, producing cotton, barley, alfalfa, dates, melons, and fruit, to the value of 10 or 15 million dollars a year, he would have been regarded as a visionary enthusiast, if not a desert-crazed monomaniac," Kennan writes.

Everything changed in 1905. An extra-snowy winter caused massive snow melt in the spring, and the Colorado River swelled, overwhelming the irrigation channels. Engineers spent months attempting—and failing—to hold the river back by building dikes and bringing in truckloads of earth to dam it. By the time they quelled the flood, a huge amount of water had already flowed into the basin of Lake Cahuilla. This was the birth of the Salton Sea.

In ensuing decades, the sea only grew larger thanks to agricultural runoff, which also deposited salts, minerals, pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers in the seabed. Some saw tourism potential in the rising waters, stocking the sea with tilapia and building resorts, restaurants, and homes along the coastline. Just a few hours' drive from Hollywood, the sea was advertised as a "paradise in the desert" or a working-man's Palm Springs. Small towns popped up on its shores: Bombay Beach. Salton Sea Beach. Desert Shores.

In the 1950s, it became a playground for the growing California middle class. Stars like the Beach Boys and Sonny Bono especially loved it; the latter became its champion. After Bono's death in 1998, his widow, Mary, told CNN that he had "wanted his legacy to be saving the Salton Sea." A national wildlife refuge in the area is now named after him.

But the heyday of the Salton Sea didn't last long. As the populations of western states grew, they needed water—not just for crops but for homes, lawns, golf courses, hospitals, and industries. And for that water, they turned to the 1450-mile-long Colorado River, which passes through seven U.S. states and two in Mexico. Forty million people depend on the Colorado. Over the decades, so much water has been siphoned from the river that in most years, it no longer flows to the Gulf of California, as it did for millions of years (with a brief pause, geologically speaking, to create Lake Cahuilla).

dead fish on salton sea shore
David McNew/Getty Images

Considering these pressures, the Salton Sea is a low priority. Its receding shores have left behind ghost towns, dead trees, toxic dust, and rotting fish.

 
 

The decision to cut off the Salton Sea from the Colorado River comes out of a 2003 deal between southern California water authorities and various parties, following an earlier lawsuit; for years, states have been grappling over water allotments from the Colorado River, and California has long been accused by other states of taking more than its fair share. That deal allowed for water for the Salton through 2017. When the last water transfer of 38 billion gallons goes through in December, the Salton will dry up faster than ever.

There are three reasons why this is a problem. First, as the lake bed becomes exposed, the fine particulates in the mud there will be blown into the already dusty skies of Imperial County. Since so much of the water that made up the lake came from agricultural runoff, that dust likely contains accumulated pesticides, DDT, and heavy metals. (The extent of the contamination is still not known, and researchers are just beginning to look at what's in the dust.)

"Those [exposed areas] are creating far more dust than the regular residential desert," Salton City resident Kerry Morrison tells Mental Floss. Morrison is the executive director of EcoMedia Compass, a nonprofit environmental organization, and president of the West Shores Chamber of Commerce, which represents several Salton Sea communities. "During dust storms, I've been down there [by the shore]. It's major," he says.

The dust is wrecking people's lungs. Residents of Imperial County have an asthma rate three times higher than the state average, and the county now has California's highest rate of asthma-associated ER visits.

"It is a crisis. It's an emergency. It needs to be dealt with," Luis Olmedo, executive director of the Comité Cívico Del Valle, an outreach and educational organization in the Imperial Valley, told The Desert Sun.

playa and lone tree at salton sea shore
David McNew/Getty Images

That crisis, like many of those exacerbated by climate change, is borne by those with the fewest resources. "This is an economic justice issue. The people affected are poor disadvantaged Hispanic communities," Michael Cohen, a senior associate at the water-focused environmental nonprofit Pacific Institute, tells Mental Floss. In a recent study, Pacific Institute estimates that the exposed lake bed could put an additional 100 tons of dust into the air per day through 2045, leading to an estimated cost of almost $40 billion in healthcare due to asthma, lung cancer, and heart disease, which are worsened by air pollution.

Economically, the communities along the Sea are also in decline. The area used to compete with Yosemite for visitors, often besting the National Park for tourists. "We've lost half of our businesses in 10 years," Morrison says. "That's not a future to believe in." But locals think it could still be an economic driver again, albeit a more modest one, if the Sea were returned to even a version of its former glory.

Birds also love the "stinky sea": In the 112 years it has been with us, the Salton has become a major stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway, which runs from Alaska to Patagonia. But the water becomes more saline as levels drop, and fish die. And without fish, the birds who have come to depend on the area die too.

pelican flies above salton sea
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

In the past, they would have had plenty of other options when Lake Cahuilla dried up, but California, like many states, has bulldozed, filled in, or developed most of its natural wetland areas—about 95 percent of them. There aren't other nearby waters for tired birds as they fly thousands of miles along their migration routes. The Salton Sea might be a smelly, salty lake to us, but to the more than 420 species of birds observed there, it's an oasis, as Audubon California notes.

 
 

But not all hope is lost for the Salton Sea. There is a 10-year plan from the state of California that is gearing up as the imminent cutoff of the lake from the Colorado River looms. The plan allocates $383 million over a decade (with an initial $80 million in funding already available) to deal with all three issues: dust, birds, and the local economy.

Under this plan, a little more than half of the Salton Sea will remain, surrounded by interconnected ponds, some as large as 500 acres. Each pond will be engineered, with berms to keep water inside and culverts connecting them. They'll be deep enough for fish to reproduce within.

According to Bruce Wilcox, assistant secretary of Salton Sea policy at the state agency California Natural Resources, "The new plan builds habitat in an incremental manner as the sea recedes. It provides a less saline habitat—that helps with the fisheries habitat and the fish-eating birds. It also covers up the exposed playa—that helps with the dust issue." Over the 10-year period, about 40,000 acres of playa—flat, dried-out desert basin that water easily evaporates from—will be covered by water. That's about two-thirds of the area that's projected to become exposed as the Salton Sea dries up.

A healthier and more pleasant sea will be better for the locals and might encourage visitors, Wilcox tells Mental Floss: "It'll look different to people, but I don't think the birds will care."

This fall, California State Resources began digging out the playa to create the first ponds. Whatever the agency learns can be used to make the future ponds as effective as possible.

Morrison calls the 10-year-plan "a good start" that provides an "ark for the animals and gives them a chance." But he says it's not enough, especially because it's not going to improve air quality to the level it needs. He points out that there's no real plan for dust mitigation where people live.

He'd like to see some of the almost $400 million spent on bringing water into the Salton Sea—actual salt water from the Gulf of California. Since the 1970s, some locals have advocated for constructing a 115-mile, border-crossing channel called the Coyote Canal. Part of the canal, covering about one-third of the distance, already exists, serving ranches and farms in Mexico. Under this plan, the canal would be extended from the gulf to a small semi-dry lake called Laguna Salada, and then continue another 40 miles north to the Salton Sea. Because the sea is so far below sea level, the canal would have a downhill run. The plan's advocates see it as an opportunity to restore the Salton Sea to its former glory.

Construction cost estimates vary, but Morrison argues they are similar to what is already being spent. Continuing the canal would involve the Mexican government, ranchers, and farmers whose land would be crossed, but Morrison says both the government and the ranchitos are enthusiastic. Having a water source—even a salty one—would be a boon for the region, including for the native Cocopah people whose culture was focused around the lower Colorado, on both sides of the Mexican border, for 4000 years. Currently, Americans use all the water before it reaches the Mexican border and the Cocopah's land. You can see how its proponents envision it working in the video below.

Morrison also points out that existing geothermal plants on the shores of the Salton Sea could use excess energy to desalinate the seawater, making a true oasis in the desert—complete with fresh water. There's already an experimental program, run by Sephton Geothermal, that does just that, and there are proposals for adding another geothermal plant to those that already exist there.

Both the canal construction and the desalination program were once included in a more ambitious—and more expensive—restoration plan for the Salton Sea area, but neither made it into the current plan.

But geoengineering is harder than nature makes it look. One cautionary tale is the Aral Sea, which straddles the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Once the fourth-largest lake in the world, it's now a ghost of its former self. For decades during the Soviet era, the rivers that fed it were diverted and dammed for agriculture. It's now "a memory of those who knew it and loved it and saw it slip away," Michael Edelstein writes in his book Disaster by Design: The Aral Sea and Its Lessons for Sustainability.

Owens Lake is another, more local example. The 200-square-mile lake, which had existed for 800,000 years at the foot of the Sierras, was sucked dry by thirsty Los Angelenos in a little more than a decade. By 1926, it was mostly gone. Dust became a problem there, too. A billion dollars later, most of the carcinogenic dust has been mitigated with engineering projects similar to those planned for the Salton Sea. But Owens Lake, once called the American Switzerland, is gone forever.

Will the Salton Sea go the way of the Aral Sea or Owens Lake? Or will the 10-year rescue plan lead to a success story?

As construction begins on the ponds, one thing is for sure: The Salton Sea as we have known it will be gone. "We are looking at a smaller, but more sustainable Salton Sea," Wilcox says. "It will have a smaller footprint, but it's something we can sustain over time."

Editor's note: This story has been updated.

25 Species That Have Made Amazing Comebacks

iStock.com/guenterguni
iStock.com/guenterguni

Conservationists can't afford to become complacent. When it comes to rescuing endangered species, progress is an ongoing effort. Still, we can take comfort in the knowledge that many organisms once on the brink of extinction or endangerment have made tremendous comebacks with our help. Just look at what happened to these 25 plants and animals.

1. THE BALD EAGLE

close-up of a bald eagle
Sherrodphoto/iStock via Getty Images

For much of the 20th century, this American icon was in jeopardy. Habitat loss, hunting, and the widespread use of DDT—an insecticide that weakens avian eggshells—once took a major toll on bald eagles. By 1963, the species population in the lower 48 states had fallen from an estimated 100,000 individuals to just 417 wild pairs. To turn things around, the U.S. government passed a series of laws, including a 1973 ban on DDT that was implemented by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These efforts paid off; today, approximately 10,000 wild breeding pairs are soaring around in the lower 48.

2. THE ARABIAN ORYX

an arabian oryx in the desert
Clendenen/iStock via Getty Images

The Arabian oryx is a desert antelope indigenous to the Middle East. Reckless hunting devastated the species, which became essentially extinct in the wild during the early 1970s. However, a few were still alive and well in captivity. So, in the 1980s, American zoos joined forces with conservationists in Jordan to launch a massive breeding program. Thanks to their efforts, the oryx was successfully reintroduced to the Arabian Peninsula, where over 1000 wild specimens now roam (with a captive population of about 7000).

3. THE GRAY WOLF

Gray wolf stalking prey in the snow
hkuchera/iStock via Getty Images

Even well-known conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt used to vilify America’s wolves. Decades of bounty programs intended to cut their numbers down to size worked all too well; by 1965, only 300 gray wolves remained in the lower 48 states, and those survivors were all confined to remote portions of Michigan and Minnesota. Later, the Endangered Species Act enabled the canids to bounce back in a big way. Now, 5000 of them roam the contiguous states.

4. THE BROWN PELICAN

Brown pelican
CarolinaBirdman/iStock via Getty Images

Louisiana’s state bird, the brown pelican, is another avian species that was brought down by DDT. In 1938, a census reported that there were 500 pairs living in Louisiana. But after farmers embraced DDT in the 1950s and 1960s, these once-common birds grew scarce. Things got so bad that, when a 1963 census was conducted, not a single brown pelican had been sighted anywhere in Louisiana. Fortunately, now that the era of DDT is over, the pelican is back with a vengeance on the Gulf Coast and no longer considered endangered.

5. ROBBINS’ CINQUEFOIL

Robbins' Cinquefoil
U.S.D.A. Forest Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Noted for its yellow flowers, Robbins’s cinquefoil (Potentilla robbinsiana) is an attractive, perennial plant that’s only found in New Hampshire’s White Mountains and Franconia Ridge. Collectors once harvested the cinquefoil in excessive numbers and careless backpackers trampled many more to death. In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service re-routed hiking trails away from the flower’s wild habitats. This, along with a breeding program, rescued the Robbins' cinquefoil from the brink of extinction.

6. THE AMERICAN ALLIGATOR

American alligator on a log
Joe Pearl Photography/iStock via Getty Images

With its population sitting at an all-time low, the American alligator was recognized as an endangered species in 1967. Working together, the Fish and -Wildlife Service and governments of the southern states took a hard line against gator hunting while also keeping tabs on free-ranging alligator populations. In 1987, it was announced that the species had made a full recovery [PDF].

7. THE NORTHERN ELEPHANT SEAL

Elephant seal winking
franksvalli/iStock via Getty Images

Due to its oil-rich blubber, the northern elephant seal became a prime target for commercial hunters. By 1892, some people were beginning to assume that it had gone extinct. However, in 1910, it was discovered that a small group—consisting of fewer than 100 seals—remained on Guadalupe Island. In 1922, Mexico turned the landmass into a government-protected biological preserve. From a place of security, that handful of pinnipeds bred like mad. Today, every single one of the 160,000 living northern elephant seals on planet Earth are that once-small group’s descendants.

8. THE HUMPBACK WHALE

humpback whale
miblue5/iStock via Getty Images

Did you know that the world’s humpback whale population is divided into 14 geographically-defined segments? Well, it is—and in 2016, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) informed the press that nine of those clusters are doing so well that they no longer require protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The cetaceans’ comeback is a huge win for the International Whaling Commission, which responded to dwindling humpback numbers by putting a ban on the hunting of this species in 1982. (That measure remains in effect.)

9. The Fin Whale

Fin whale near Greenland
Aqqa Rosing-Asvid—Visit Greenland, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

Commercial whaling decimated global populations of fin whales, the second-largest species of baleen whale on Earth. In the 1970s, international coalitions banned fin whale hunting in the Southern Hemisphere and the North Pacific, and legal catches were reduced in the North Atlantic in the 1990. Though three countries—Norway, Iceland, and Japan—continue to hunt whales for oil and meat, the IUCN reported in 2018 that the fin whale population has doubled since the 1970s.

10. THE WHITE RHINO

White rhino adult and calf
Marcello Calandrini/iStock via Getty Images

Make no mistake: The long-term survival of Earth’s largest living rhino is still very uncertain because poachers continue to slaughter them en masse. Nevertheless, there is some good news. Like black-footed ferrets and northern elephant seals, white rhinos were once presumed to be extinct. But in 1895, just under 100 of them were unexpectedly found in South Africa. Thanks to environmental regulations and breeding efforts, more than 20,000 are now at large.

11. THE WILD TURKEY

two male wild turkeys
Lois_McCleary/iStock via Getty Images

It’s hard to imagine that these birds were ever in any real trouble, and yet they looked destined for extinction in the early 20th century. With no hunting regulations to protect them, and frontiersmen decimating their natural habitat, wild turkeys disappeared from several states. By the 1930s, there were reportedly fewer than 30,000 left in the American wilderness. Now, over 6 million are strutting around. So what changed? A combination of bag limits set by various agencies and an increase in available shrublands.

12. THE BLACK-FOOTED FERRET

black-footed ferret
USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

North America’s only indigenous ferret is a prairie dog-eater that was written off as “extinct” in 1979. But the story of this animal took a surprising twist two years later, when a Wyoming dog gave a freshly dead one to its owner. Amazed by the canine’s find, naturalists soon located a wild colony. Some of these ferrets were then inducted into a breeding program, which helped bring the species’ total population up to over 1000.

13. THE CALIFORNIA CONDOR

portrait of a California condor
SumikoPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

Since 1987, the total number of California condors has gone up from 27 birds to about 450, with roughly 270 of those being wild animals (according to a 2016 count by the FWS). With its 10-foot wingspan, this is the largest flying land bird in North America.

14. THE GOLDEN LION TAMARIN

two tamarins
Enjoylife2/iStock via Getty Images

A flashy orange primate from Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, the golden lion tamarin has been struggling to cope with habitat destruction. The species hit rock-bottom in the early 1970s, when fewer than 200 remained in the wild. A helping hand came from the combined efforts of Brazil’s government, the World Wildlife Federation, public charities, and 150 zoos around the world. There’s now a healthy population of captive tamarins tended to by zookeepers all over the globe. Meanwhile, breeding, relocation, and reintroduction campaigns have increased the number of wild specimens to around 1700—although urban sprawl could threaten the species with another setback. But at least the animal doesn’t have a PR problem: Golden lion tamarins are so well-liked that the image of one appears on a Brazilian banknote.

15. THE ISLAND NIGHT LIZARD

island night lizard
Ryan P. O'Donnell, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

Native to three of California’s Channel Islands, this omnivorous, 4-inch reptile was granted federal protection under the Endangered Species Act in 1977. The designation couldn’t have come at a better time, as introduced goats and pigs were decimating the night lizard’s wild habitat in those days. But now that wild plants have been reestablished under FWS guidance, more than 21 million of the reptiles are believed to be living on the islands.

16. THE OKARITO KIWI

Small, flightless, island birds usually don’t fare well when invasive predators arrive from overseas. (Just ask the dodo.) New Zealanders take great pride in the five kiwi species found exclusively in their country, including the Okarito kiwi, which is also known as the Okarito brown or rowi kiwi. These animals have historically suffered at the hands of introduced dogs and stoats. But recently, there’s been some cause for celebration. Although there were only about 150 Okarito kiwis left in the mid-1990s, conservation initiatives have triggered a minor population boom, with about 400 to 500 adult birds now wandering about. Taking note of this trend, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has declared that the Okarito kiwi is no longer endangered.

17. THE BROWN BEAR

brown bear with three cubs
LuCaAr/iStock via Getty Images

Let’s clear something up: The famous grizzly bear technically isn’t its own species. Instead, it is a North American subspecies of the brown bear (Ursus arctos), which also lives in Eurasia. Still, grizzlies are worth mentioning here because of just how far they’ve come within the confines of Yellowstone National Park. In 1975, there were only 136 of them living inside the park. Today, approximately 700 of them call the place home. In 2018, the FWS delisted the Greater Yellowstone population grizzlies from Endangered Species Act protection, but reinstated them in July 2019 as "threatened" to comply with a Montana court ruling.

18. THE THERMAL WATER LILY

thermal water lily

With pads that can be as tiny as one centimeter across, the thermal water lily is the world’s smallest water lily. Discovered in 1985, it was only known to grow in Mashyuza, Rwanda, where it grew in the damp mud surrounding the area’s hot spring. Or at least it did. The thermal water lily seems to have disappeared from its native range. Fortunately, before the species went extinct in the wild, some seeds and seedlings were sent to London’s Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. There, horticulturalists figured out a way to make the lilies flower in captivity, and managed to saved the species.

19. THE PEREGRINE FALCON

Peregrine falcon
ca2hill/iStock via Getty Images

When a peregrine falcon dives toward its airborne prey, the bird-eating raptor has been known to hit speeds of up to 242 miles per hour. The species endured a plummet of a different sort when DDT dropped its population. In the first few decades of the 20th century, there were around 3900 breeding pairs in the United States. By 1975, the number of known pairs had been whittled down to 324. Things got better after the insecticide was banned, and according to the FWS, somewhere between 2000 and 3000 peregrine falcon pairs currently patrol the skies in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

20. PRZEWALSKI'S HORSE

Przewalski's horse in autumn field
Nemyrivskyi Viacheslav/iStock via Getty Images

There are a few different subspecies of wild horse, all of which are endangered. One variant is the Przewalski's horse (Equus ferus perzewalskii) from Mongolia. It completely vanished from that nation during the 1950s, but by then assorted zoos around the world had started breeding them. From 1992 to 2004, some 90 captive-born horses were released into Mongolia. They thrived and around 300 are living in their native habitat today, while other populations have been successfully introduced in Hungary and Russia (including in the Chernobyl exclusion zone).

21. THE NORTH AMERICAN BEAVER

North American beaver
webmink/iStock via Getty Images

No one knows how many hundreds of millions [PDF] of these buck-toothed rodents were living on the continent before European fur traders showed up. But after two centuries of over-trapping, spurred by the lucrative pelt trade, the number of North American beavers had shrunk to an abysmal 100,000 in 1900. Their fortunes reversed when restocking programs were implemented in the U.S. and Canada. Nowadays, somewhere between 10 and 15 million beavers live in those countries. Thanks to beaver's amazing landscaping talents, many property owners have come to see them (unfairly) as pests.

22. THE CAFÉ MARRON

Cafe Marron tree
Abu Shawka, Wikimedia Commons // CC0 1.0

Rodrigues Island in the Indian Ocean once gave biologists a chance to raise the (near) dead. This landmass is the home of a small tree with star-shaped flowers called the café marron. It was thought that the plant had long since died out when a single specimen was found by a schoolboy named Hedley Manan in 1980. As the only surviving member of its species known to humankind, that lone plant assumed paramount importance. Cuttings from the isolated café marron were used to grow new trees at England’s Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Right now, there are more than 50 of these plants—and all of them can have their ancestry traced straight back to that one holdout tree.

23. THE WEST INDIAN MANATEE

Manatee with fish
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

A docile, slow-moving marine mammal with a taste for sea grasses, the Floridian subspecies of the West Indian manatee is a creature that does not react well to razor-sharp propellers. Collisions with boats are a significant threat, and the danger won’t go away altogether. Still, the passage of tighter boating regulations has helped the Sunshine State rejuvenate its manatee population, which has more than tripled since 1991.

24. THE BURMESE STAR TORTOISE

Burmese star tortoise
LagunaticPhoto/iStock via Getty Images

The pet trade did a number on these guys. Beginning in the 1990s, wildlife traffickers harvested Burmese star tortoises until they effectively became “ecologically extinct” in their native Myanmar. Luckily, conservationists had the foresight to set up breeding colonies with specimens who’d been confiscated from smugglers. The program started out with fewer than 200 tortoises in 2004; today, it has more than 14,000 of them. “Our ultimate objective is to have about 100,000 star tortoises in the wild,” Steve Platt, a herpetologist who’s been taking part in the initiative, said in a Wildlife Conservation Society video.

25. THE GIANT PANDA

panda in tree
DennisvandenElzen/iStock via Getty Images

Here we have it: the poster child for endangered animals everywhere … except that the giant panda is no longer endangered. In 2016, the IUCN changed its status from “endangered” to “vulnerable.” There’s still a chance that we could lose the majestic bamboo-eater once and for all someday, but the last few years have offered a bit of hope. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of wild pandas increased 17 percent. The welcome development was made possible by enacting a poaching ban and establishing new panda reserves. It’s nice to know that, with the right environmental policies, we can make the future brighter for some of our fellow creatures.

This story first ran in 2017.

California Sets Regulations for Diners Bringing Their Own Reusable Containers to Restaurants

Magone/iStock via Getty Images
Magone/iStock via Getty Images

Even if you stick to reusable containers at home—and wash and reuse your disposable plastics whenever possible—living a sustainable, zero-waste lifestyle isn't always easy, especially when you're getting takeout that involves to-go bags and boxes that are destined for the trash. Well, according to Nation's Restaurant News, California recently passed a law that will make it easier for customers to bring their own reusable containers to restaurants in order to bring food home with them while cutting down on waste.

Previously, the standard policy at many restaurants in California was to decline taking outside containers (Tupperware, cups, etc.) into the kitchen to avoid cross-contamination. And those that did accept these containers would do so without clear guidelines from health departments. This new law, which was signed by governor Gavin Newsom in July, gives restaurants the choice to opt in to a safer, more regulated version of this practice.

According to the bill, establishments that want to use containers provided by patrons are under no legal obligation to clean them, and containers should ideally be filled someplace separate from the kitchen's serving surface. If they need to be filled on the same surface used for serving and food prep, the area should be sanitized immediately afterwards. Restaurants should also have a policy for preventing cross-contamination available to health inspectors in writing.

The law doesn't force restaurants to use foreign takeout containers if they don't want to. Rather, it gives businesses the option to follow more official guidelines about how reusable containers from customers can be implemented safely. In addition to leading to new to-go policies at restaurants, the bill could also change the way food stands at festivals and other events operate. Before, health codes required temporary foodservice sites to stick to disposable plates and utensils, but under the new law, reusable items will be allowed as long as they're cleaned on site or at an approved facility.

[h/t The Takeout]

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