Los Angeles’ bizarre ‘Shade Balls’ save millions

LA’s unique attempt to curb the harsh effects of the Californian drought first made headlines last year when the city dumped 96 million black plastic balls into their main reservoir. Throwing balls at your problems may seem like an illogical and confusing solution, but their reasoning was really quite simple. By covering the L.A. Reservoir in a blanket of black, carbon balls, the water is protected from contaminants catalysed by sunlight, such as bromate. In the past, discovering high levels of bromate prompted an emergency 600 gallon draining of two of the city’s reservoirs. The story gained popularity last year for its demonstration of human innovation and also because the internet will seize any opportunity to make ball jokes.

The concept, envisioned by a former biologist working with Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, was inspired by similar projects used to stop birds from landing in ponds alongside airport runways. While the original intention of the shade balls at the reservoir was to avert unwanted chemical reactions, the balls have an added benefit in that they prevent evaporation of the reservoir’s drinking water, with an estimated 300 million gallons being saved annually.

The plastic spheres, partially filled with water, that now coat the L.A. Reservoir in their millions were costed at $34.5 million, which sounds like a lot for a bunch of balls. However, the shade balls plan was selected by the city in lieu of building a $300 million cover for the reservoir, so comparatively, it’s a very cheap method of achieving the same outcome.

Following the deployment of the shade balls last August, Sydney Chase of Xavier LLC - one of the manufacturing companies – said that sales inquiries had increased. “We’re getting attention from all over the world, mainly from governments. It’s definitely a viable product. They have been proven over time.”

One year down the line though, business isn’t quite booming. LA Reservoir is the only water reservoir in the area utilising shade balls. This is because federal rules dictate that all drinking water that is open to the air must be covered to avoid chemical reactions, rain, dust and birds from contaminating it. Shade balls are acceptable at the LA Reservoir because it has a secondary ultra-violet treatment process to disinfect the water. At all other reservoirs the shade balls do not provide adequate coverage in isolation and as such have not been implemented.

This article first appeared in Issue 24, 2016.
Posted 10:18am Saturday 24th September 2016 by Liam Brown.