California’s drought crisis, considered to be the worst ever recorded for the state1, is now well into its fifth year. Though 2016 has been deemed a ‘wet’ year thus far, the state’s troubles are far from over. In May, the water level at Lake Mead, a reservoir on the Colorado River, reached a historic low.2 In June, researchers at a journal of the American Geophysical Union determined that the state may not recover from its water deficit until 2019.3
But creativity often blossoms in the face of adversity, and there is no better example of that than within the array of actions taken by the City of Los Angeles and its Mayor Eric Garcetti, through its various outreach campaigns, pilot programs, and more.4
In one of the city’s most widely publicized actions, shade balls, black plastic spheres roughly four inches in diameter, were employed to cover and protect several of LA’s key reservoirs, in attempt to reduce levels of evaporation and harmful bacterial growth. You can see why the news gained so much traction:
The plastic black spheres were part of a $34 million project in which the LA Department of Water and Power (LADWP) let ninety-six million spheres loose on the Los Angeles Reservoir alone. Made out of a dense polyethylene and partly filled with water, the balls were meant to reduce the area of the water exposed to the sun.5 They were also designed to have a lifespan of ten years, after which time the balls were to be fully removed and recycled. The balls are designed not to degrade, are BPA free, and are fully certified by the National Science Foundation as safe for contact with potable water.
The project generated a plethora of media traction, sparking conversations across several major news outlets, and additionally engaging the public on Twitter (see #shadeballs).
— 태 희 (@tessa_chimits) February 19, 2016
— #BowtieTom (@ciszek) August 27, 2016
At the same time, the willing introduction of several million artificial artifacts into LA’s only sources of water quite understandably led to much alarm. Dr. Max Liboiron of the Memorial University of Newfoundland summarizes them in her blog. Mostly, concerns revolve around the fact that there will inevitably be plastic-borne residues left in the reservoir. Plastics can additionally become hubs for attracting different chemicals and foster the growth other types of foreign microbes.
Most interestingly, Dr. Liboiron posits that “technological fixes for systemic problems usually lead to more problems”.6 Rather than allocating expenditure to short term fixes such as shade balls (recalling that their lifespan is just ten years), she suggests that the focus be on systemic reform and increasing the engagement of key of industry players.
Stepping back, I see the use of shade balls as both a success and failure in terms of its role as a designed intervention. On the one hand, Dr. Liboiron’s concerns around budget allocation are very real: though shade balls are expected to prevent some 300 million gallons of water from evaporating, this is a fraction compared to the amount that could be saved through stricter policies for industries. On the other, there’s a lot to be said for the added value of public interest. The ball itself is quite cost effective on a per-unit scale, and certainly serves for attention grabbing images. Perhaps its social value will increase even further as California’s state of drought continues with no end in sight, and its potential for impact on surrounding states and economies grows.
1Seen on various news sites (BBC, The Guardian)