'Shade balls' protect LA water supply during drought

Black 'Shade balls' in LA? Why aren't they white?
Black 'Shade balls' in LA? Why aren't they white?

Reports of mysterious "shade balls" in Los Angeles reservoirs have been bobbing to the surface.

But they're there for a reason. The black, plastic spheres, partially filled with water, that are now in a Los Angeles reservoir by the millions are part of a $34 million project to protect the region's water supply from contaminants and evaporation.

The plan is expected to save the city $250 million, compared with other available plans, according to a press release.

The idea was developed by a former biologist with the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, who was inspired by the use of similar balls to keep birds from landing in ponds along airplane runways. They cost 36 cents each to make, and they line the surface of three other reservoirs in the Los Angeles area. Ninety-six million of the spheres are floating in the Los Angeles Reservoir alone, according to the release.

Over 90 million plastic balls cover the Los Angeles reservoir in the Sylmar area of Los Angeles on Aug. 12, 2015.
Damian Dovarganes | AP

Pure black carbon gives the balls their color after being added to the plastic to absorb UV rays. That prevents sunlight from penetrating the plastic and getting to either the water inside the balls or beneath them. A lighter-colored ball may allow sunlight to pass through into the water, rendering it ineffective, said Sydney Chase, who owns shade ball manufacturer XavierC, one of the suppliers involved in the project.

"Carbon black has been utilized for decades in rugged outdoor environments" precisely because it can help materials withstand sunlight, Chase said.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power began blanketing local reservoirs with the balls to prevent the UV rays from catalyzing certain chemical reactions that could produce algae or harmful chemicals, such as bromate.

Though they originally were intended to protect reservoir water from contaminants catalyzed by sunlight, an added benefit is that the shade balls will prevent the evaporation of 300 million gallons of water, enough to supply drinking water for more than 8,000 people for a full year, according to the press release.