It takes balls — lots of them in the form of plastic shade balls — to protect the drinking water in drought-stricken California.
Some 20,000 of the 4-inch orbs of polyethylene were released Monday into a Los Angeles reservoir, where they will prevent precious potable water from evaporating, among other things.
Yes, part of the solution to the worst water crisis in the state's 164-year history looks like a Chuck E. Cheese ball pit and costs 36 cents per unit.
In all, 96 million black spheres now float atop the 175-acre reservoir. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power marked the deployment of the last batch on Aug. 10 with a ceremonial dumping. Officials exclaimed “shade balls away” as the low-tech answer to saving water rolled down the concrete basin walls.
Video of the release has gone viral, giving shade balls their moment in the global limelight. The media had fun covering the issue (Plastics News reported on it in January 2014), working turns of phrase like “black balled” into headlines. Now shade balls are trending on social media. No doubt that product name with visuals is pretty irresistible.
Maybe the innovative idea to save water with plastic balls will catch on, too. The LADWP is the first utility to use them for water quality protection, according to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who said in a press release that “in the midst of California's historic drought, it takes bold ingenuity” to conserve water.
The reservoir holds 3.3 billion gallons of water — a three-week supply for 4 million customers — and without a covering of some sort about 300 million gallons would evaporate every year, the city says.
More importantly, the shade balls keep UV rays from triggering a dangerous chemical reaction between bromite, which occurs naturally in groundwater, and the chlorine used to disinfect drinking water. When you add sunlight to bromite and chlorine, you get bromate, which is a suspected carcinogen and is known to give some people nausea and abdominal pain if ingested in large amounts.
Shade balls are saving the city money, too. The initial plan to protect the reservoir called for splitting it into two parts with a dam in the middle and then installing two covers over it at a cost of more than $300 million. The price tag for shade balls: $34.5 million. L.A.'s mayor says it is a cost-effective investment and that surely will get the balls rolling into more reservoirs in more cities.
You can see Garcetti and other officials releasing the shade balls on the LADWP Facebook page, or click the video below for a view of a slightly more efficient delivery method, via truck.