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Shade balls! Water-saving invention sounds silly, looks hypnotic and is a piece of genius

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 August, 2015, 9:43am
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 August, 2015, 10:29pm

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They emerged from obscurity this week on the internet with all the markings of Buzzphrase of the Year. It’s shady. It’s enigmatic. To stoke juvenile social media glee, it has the word “balls” in it.

But “shade balls” are dead serious - hollow, polyethylene orbs that have been dumped by the millions into California reservoirs to save water from evaporation amid a crippling drought.

How many? The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has now deployed 96 million balls into the local reservoir. In addition to saving water, they block sunlight that would otherwise encourage algae growth and toxic chemical reactions.

Watch: Unleash the shade balls!

The balls are coated with a chemical that blocks ultraviolet light and helps the spheres last up to 25 years.

These are not your average ball-pit balls. They’re hermetically sealed, with water inside them as ballast, lest when the wind picks up “they’ll blow out and you’ll be chasing them down the road,” said Sydney Chase, president of manufacturer XavierC.

You could drink even the ballast, because no one wants nonpotable water leaking into the reservoirs.

The deployment of the balls from the backs of semi-trailers is a strangely hypnotic scene, hence some of the internet’s fascination: a barrelling barrage of black balls that just never seems to end.

Los Angeles officials estimated at a news conference that shade balls will save somewhere around 1.1 billion litres of water each year. Of course, that’s dwarfed by the 50 billion litres of water consumed by Los Angeles in June of this year alone.

“This is a blend of how engineering really meets common sense,” Marcie Edwards, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said at the news conference Tuesday, according to ABC 7. “We saved a lot of money, we did all the right things.”

The US Environmental Protection Agency has mandated that all reservoirs be covered, and in Los Angeles, that would have cost an estimated US$300 million to cover the 70-hectare Los Angeles Reservoir facility, ABC 7 reported. But thanks to shade balls, the bill was cut down to just US$34.5 million

Aside from Los Angeles, shade balls have also been used in the City of Ivanhoe and the Las Virgenes Water District in Southern California.

Chase calls her product “conservation balls”, because they can help keep reservoirs intact and clean. They’re also seeing use on the tailing ponds where miners store contaminated water, to keep birds away from toxic agents, and in wastewater treatment facilities, to keep odours at bay. They cost about US36 cents each to make. 

The shade balls are a novel way to protect drinking water, and Californians’ latest attempt to adjust to their four-year drought. But they reflect a larger question: What can be done to Earth, its waters, air, and land, to mitigate climate-related changes?

It’s even been suggested that billions of reflective balloons be deployed in the Arctic to act as synthetic sea ice to bounce sunlight away and slow the melting.