Shade Balls Controversy

During the week of August 10, Los Angeles city workers filled the Los Angeles (LA) Reservoir with 96 million 4-inch spherical balls made of high density polyethylene, colored wtih carbon black and ballasted by potable water (filled with some water to keep them from blowing away). According to the manufacturer’s website these balls are called “conservation balls” and their purpose is to keep water from evaporating from large reservoirs. The company says they can be applied at municipalities to reduce water evaporation in reservoirs, ski areas to reduce evaporation in reservoirs, water treatment facilities to reduce odor, in the mining Industry, and in the petroleum Industry. The company says the balls address evaporation by providing a floating cover on the reservoir taking up approximately 90% of the surface area and simultaneously preventing ultra violet (UV) rays from reaching the water and therefore reducing algae.

The shade ball project cost about $35 million, but according to officials saved them $250 million when compared to building a cover to shade the reservoir. It is reported to save about 300 million gallons of water annualy from evaporation. But LA officials also said that they have another purpose – to shade the water from UV so that bromates don’t form. Bromates are disinfection byproducts that form when bromide in the water reacts with UV and a disinfectant (oxidizer) like ozone or chlorine. And, LA has been using the shade balls in two other reservoirs since 2008, without much of a peep or concern to this point. What was difference about this time?

Concerns have been raised over the use of the shade balls – some of this has now been discussed by LA Officials and the company and others remain unresolved. The biggest problem I saw when this story came out is that the municipality did not anticipate questions and issues (=communication fail). The awareness of the potential harm from plastic in our environment (and specifcially our waterways) is probably higher than ever. The shade balls were instantly touted as a great cost-saving solution to covering the entire 175-acre surface of the reservoir. They even made a video to be released and a press release. No one seemed to have the foresight to see there would be questions about leaching from the plastic and the potential for degredation and microplastic formation. We study plastic fragmentation in my lab – we expose polymers (one of them polyethylene) to UV light and then see if fragmentation occurs. We are still working on studying time frames and synergy of conditions like abrasion and UV exposure, but this looks like one big plastic fragmentation experiment to me. I would go out in one year and sample the water for microplastic. And do so every so often after that. That means the 2008 reservoir could be sampled now. While we know that plastic does not biodegrade, we do also know that the ocean contains (and sometimes spits out) microplastic particles that were once larger items. But we don’t fully understand the timeframe and mechanisms for that transformation yet.

What do you think of this as a solution to Californias drought issues? If a municipality has to find a solution quickly and for the least cost, what else can they do? Could other methods or solutions could be combined with this one? Can you think of any policy-related solutions?

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24 thoughts on “Shade Balls Controversy

  1. My first thought reading this article was wow that’s interesting floating shade balls, then my attention shifted to leaching of plastic. I wonder if storing water underground could be feasible to combat evaporation, however I think cost would be a factor if the reservoir was stored in a tank under the ground to prevent water contamination from the ground.

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    1. There was a note in an article I read that did say that underground storage, which is growing in popularity, would avoid this issue. They are trying to move to that. Also, HDPE, which is also what plastic milk jugs are made out of, typically does not contain additives like BPA or phthaltes. But other than carbon black, we don’t know if any other additives were used in the balls.

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  2. After reading this, I went straight for the informative video.

    “This is a blend of how engineering meets common sense.”

    Yes, both water and economic savings were vital, but at what cost? I’m interested to hear, other than the initial shock of thousands of black balls rolling into the reservoir, how citizens feel for long-term costs and benefits. If they’re at all educated, they don’t care, or they believe this solution proves better than any other in the long-run.

    Most of the comments I read for each article were surprisingly educated. We’ll see where they stand when studies are done on the reservoir in the future.

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  3. I had seen a video on social media right after they release the shade balls and thought, “wow how cool, floating balls to prevent evaporation!” but didn’t think about any of the negative effects these balls could have on the drinking water such as the carbon black leaching or microplastics being formed. What I found interesting in the different resources provided is that the shade balls have been used since 2008 in 2 other LA reservoirs. One article made the point that putting the shade balls on this particular reservoir was partially a PR move to promote those “kooky Californians”.
    I believe the next step in investigating the pros and cons of the shade balls would be as Dr. Jambeck said and to do research in the reservoirs who have had the shade balls for 5 years and begin testing to see what negative and positive outcomes the shade balls are causing.

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  4. I feel they could have developed a better solution that does not involve the usage of plastic. Too much of our everyday surroundings are made of plastic. I think it is highly concerning where this plastic will end up in the long run and how it will impact our environment. Though we may not see any immediate harmful impacts right now, it could still impose difficult problems for future generations. Until more research has been done, I think there are several other sustainable options that they could have used. A cheaper alternative could lead to a costly problem in the future.

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  5. Okay, more plastic issues. And that other article mentioned how the balls weren’t really used for evaporation prevention, but to keep the sunlight from the Bromide/Chlorine. And that they are used to keep birds off of airplane runways. That’s disappointing, I thought the balls would be more special than that. They are definitely going start leaching into the water, like the old ball pit balls. Hopefully it won’t be too bad. But since they only cost 40 cents each so maybe the money saved on the tarp can be used on testing and filtering out the water.

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  6. My first thought that came to mind after reading the article was, how safe is it to consume water has been in contact with thousand of black shade balls? Also, if something becomes contaminated in the water, how quickly can the source be removed without causing additional environmental impact?

    In one of the links, it says California has been using this idea since 2008 and that it is not as effective in evaporation as it may seem. I believe that additional infrastructure such as underground storage tanks should be utilized instead using the shade balls approach.

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  7. It seems like they are between a rock and a hard place. If they don’t do this they risk loosing the water, but using the shade balls puts plastic in their water supply. I would like to think they the cost benefit before hand but I am not sure that happened. They assumed that saving water was worth the long-term risk. I hope that they were correct in their assessment.

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  8. This solution to the drought issue concerns me based on all we know about plastics in our water systems. It seems counterintuitive to add millions of plastic balls into a reservoir in which we are uncertain what the long-term results will be. Using underground storage tanks seems like a much safer method of storing water without evaporation loss; however, this would be more expensive. Even so, when reading about alternatives to this plastic ball plan online, I found that the county’s other plan was to divide the reservoir into two halves with a dam. They were they going to cover the reservoirs with floating plastic covers to prevent evaporation. Since the alternative also dealt with plastic covers at a much higher cost, maybe the plastic ball idea was the only logical, less expensive option. I wonder if these smaller plastic balls pose more of an environmental risk than one large plastic cover.

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  9. My initial impression was oh cool someone in California finally wised up and found a way significantly lower evaporation rates in their reservoirs. After reading further though I found that the lifespan of the balls was only 25 years, which may seem like a lot and I’m sure the amount of water saved will be quite large, but why do they only have a 25 year lifespan. I was a little disappointed they couldn’t have found another measure or material to use but I’m sure it would have cost much more. I also feel bad for the wildlife that frequent these reservoirs as they will no longer have a way to fully access the lake if even access it at all.

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  10. This shade ball controversy is an interesting due to the unknown long term effects. Plastic in our water system is bad for human health, but I understand that by using these shade balls they save a hefty amount of money. As Dr Jambeck said above, we do not know for sure what toxic or harmful chemicals are in the plastic waste. The government’s mindset is to always save money, but they have to take careful risk as not to poison their constituents. There are other solutions and ideas such as combining the shade balls with the UV protector. This yes will be more pricey, but overall better for the government.

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  11. We just talked about retroactive approaches to environmental policy in class and what I find it interesting is that California, who has a reputation of being a front runner and strong proponent to stricter environmental regulations, has found themselves behind the curve here.

    As for the questions you pose; if evaporation is a function of surface area then they are certainly on the right track, no doubt. The cheap prices of plastic make the solution that much more viable. It seems that when things get tough we revert back to the easiest, most cost effective solution regardless of the environmental impact, especially if the repercussions are not immediate. The drought there is really bad and I think that they need a solution and they need it ASAP. If this is working then it may be the best, bad idea they had to go with.

    Since evaporation is a function of surface area, I don’t see a solution other than the balls, a shade (which they ruled out because of $) or putting it underground, which was also too expensive…

    **Warning: I know absolutely nothing about this so I could be putting my foot in my mouth here, but if there is a nearby well that is being sucked dry (as most are around the country) couldn’t they pump the water back into it? Could that be a viable option? I know that geothermal wells operate in a open or “looping” system and that’s what made me think of it. I have no idea how feasible this could be from a economic stand point or an environmental regulation standpoint though, so feel free to shoot me down if necessary!

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  12. While the concerns about the end result of plastic leaching and other problems associated with the shade balls on the reservoir is ambiguous, if not foreboding, I think that this shouldn’t be seen as a permanent resolution. For the current state of things, they could treat this reservoir like Illinois did with their “traffic light” system when dealing with fracking and test the water every couple of months to determine if they need to remove the shade balls sooner rather than later. So long as there are no major detrimental changes, they could use the time they have acquired to work on a better method to solve their problem. While this probably shouldn’t have been their first choice to alleviate the situation, they have already done it; and as such, they should definitely make good use of their time to work towards a better resolve.

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  13. It surprises me that there is so much uncertainty surrounding the potential for these shade balls to leach into the water, especially when the city has been using this for the past seven years. At first glance, it seems like a bad idea knowing the dangers of plastics in surface waters, no less a drinking reservoir. After researching further and reading proponent’s responses to critics of the plan, it does appear to me to be the best short-term solution, with an emphasis on short-term. While the odds of the shade balls fragmenting and leaching into the reservoir are said to be unlikely, alternatives should be considered if the drought conditions don’t improve. Also, close monitoring of the reservoir should be implemented for future policymaking regarding this issue.

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  14. I never thought of the problem of evaporating reservoirs, but I can see how it’s a major issue in California. If the plastic balls in these reservoirs are fragmenting and contaminating the water supply, then they are certainly doing more harm than good. Thinking about alternative solutions, I wonder if a solar energy project might work to shade the reservoir without having a capsulating effect. If you can cover a field with solar panels and profit off the natural energy source, I think this could be done over water, while also providing shade.

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  15. I completely agree with the concerns over plastic in the waterways. In addition, it is interesting that the video stated that they would need to be replaced every 10 years. I wonder what the life of a more expensive roof-like system would be and whether the long-term costs are still better.

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  16. I do not think it is smart to implement such a large scale “solution” like that without extensive experimentation. The effect of plastic on an ecosystem can be and often is detrimental. Plastic is not natural. Beyond that, cutting off the solar exposure to a water body isn’t natural either. I would assume that it affects the biodiversity of the system.
    From my understanding, the shade balls aren’t really a response to drought issues more than it is to carcinogenic reactions happening in the water. The balls are meant to cool the water so that these reactions don’t happen. Conserving a little bit of water through less evaporation is a plus.
    Sunlight is the root of all processes in an ecosystem. Hindering the exposure of sunlight to a water source doesn’t seem healthy. If the water isn’t evaporating as it usually does, that means it isn’t cycling like it should. This can cause things to build up in the water. It’s the same concept as water flowing through a stream versus not moving at all. This reservoir is already stationary but now that the water isn’t evaporating much at all, the water is even more stagnant which can cause build ups that might be unhealthy in other ways that aren’t cancerous. A lack of sunlight is going to change the underwater ecology of the reservoir no matter what. This could affect any organisms in the water that might be beneficial to the cleanliness of the water!
    It seems to me like these shade balls might change the composition of organisms in the water. Organisms evolve under strenuous circumstances. I’d say putting 96 million apple sized black balls in a 175-acre reservoir is a strenuous circumstance that could not only change the ecological relations between organisms but the organisms themselves and how they fundamentally function for survival.
    It wouldn’t be a bad idea to start setting up rain barrels in the places with the most rainfall or on roofs. The majority of bacteria enters rainwater from a roof and gutter system where the water picks up fecal matter from birds, squirrels, etc. In addition to a multi faceted filtration system, these shade balls might be helpful for residential rainwater collection. The inspiration of the shade ball idea actually came from a biologist who was inspired by “bird balls” that were used to deter birds in ponds. The balls camouflage the water surface from aquatic birds which in turns prevents unwanted birds from using or contaminating the water.
    We can use this same idea to put in the rainwater barrels or attach some material on to rooftops that deter birds from landing so they don’t produce fecal matter. It would become a sort of pre-filtration unit in addition to the filtration that is required for rainwater. I feel like the shade balls wouldn’t have a negative impact on a much reduced scale either. The filtration system that is required to turn rainwater into drinking water is fairly extensive because of the bacteria produced from animal fecal matter, the material of the roofs and gutters, and the conditions of the area so anything that might prevent bacteria in the water would be helpful to the filtration system.

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  17. This example proves exactly what we discussed in class that America does not tend to follow the precautionary principle. While this strategy solves our issue at present, it may end up causing much worse problems down the road. The cheapest option is not always the best option. While investing in a shade is much more expensive, it may pay off in the end. Sometimes the risk is not worth the reward.

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  18. What becomes a higher priority? Cost? Environmental protection? Pleasing constituents? Many times, decisions are made that are economically viable and seem to be environmentally sustainable options (keeping valuable resources from disappearing, in this case water evaporation); however, there is not enough research done into what is being implemented in these sectors. It appears that research is still being conducted about the degradation of plastics in water systems, therefore it surprises me, other than the cost benefits, that something like this would be implemented in California.

    Drugs are tested for human health-things that are directly ingested by people. Why should our water be any different? We are still unsure about how plastics affect water systems and human health, therefore, these “shade balls” may not have been the best solution for this situation.

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  19. When first hearing about this, it seems like LA is doing all they can to quickly and economically conserve water during their drought. However, the realization that they have been using these shade balls for years without proper testing is really shocking considering California’s history of environmental stewardship. Placing a potential contaminant into the drinking water supply in efforts to make the supply available to citizens seems rash and impulsive.

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  20. Reading this article and doing additional research, I do like this shade balls solution. As far as repercussions, since no concerns have been researched yet, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any. More research needs to be done. I believe the shade balls will benefit the drought issue hugely, but I don’t think they will fix 100% of the water issues. As far as alternatives, I think this plan is better than putting a cover over the entire water mass. Another realistic alternative is splitting the reservoir in 2 by a manmade dam. This plan will conserve and protect water, but is also way more expensive than implementing shade balls.

    I also like the additional benefits these balls hold such as UV protection and its affects on algae. Also this plan lasting 10 years is a sufficient time. I found on a non-credible website, that the shade balls cost 36 cents each. One idea was to replace them with recycled milk jugs holding sand to weigh them down. My question is, if the shape has any effect, if the type of plastic matters, and if it’ll still have the carbon black for UV protection. The balls have a 4in outer diameter while milk jugs are less than a cm. It is nice that other options are being explored, but many other factors need to be considered when figuring out the best option.

    http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/08/11/431670483/la-rolls-out-water-saving-shade-balls

    http://abcnews.go.com/US/los-angeles-reservoir-covered-96-million-shade-balls/story?id=33038319

    http://www.ladwpnews.com/go/doc/1475/2588938/Shade-Balls-Frequently-Asked-Questions

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  21. It seems that this is a solution that solves one environmental problem by creating another. Ultimately it boils down to time and economics. Compared to one set of alternatives, these balls were decided to be the most cost effective. Implementing this plan, despite a lack of long term research, would allow them to begin benefiting sooner. However, at $35 million, they are only saving $2 million in water evaporation. I think this option is a more creative and inexpensive approach than a simple covering or drastically retrofitting an entire facility. But with more time, other creative solutions that avoid the use of plastics and are even cheaper could be devised. One strategy would be to look into alternative ways to prevent bromate formation. In addressing water evaporation, I wonder if a plastic sheet that doesn’t come in contact with the water would be a suitable cover. Or perhaps using a constructed cover topped with photovoltaics would help offset costs.

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