Environment & Science

What ever happened to LA's 'shade balls'?

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti helps to release shade balls into the L.A. Reservoir.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti helps to release shade balls into the L.A. Reservoir.
Eric Garcetti/Flickr Creative Commons

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“Shade balls away!”

It was the cry that was heard around the internet.

For a few days last August, the video of L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and staff of Los Angeles Department of Water and Power sending a cascade of 4” black plastic balls down a steep slope and into the L.A. Reservoir was everywhere.

The Washington Post called it “hypnotizing.” San Francisco Weekly said it couldn’t “stop thinking about shade balls.” It even had its very own hashtag, #shadeballs.

And of course, there were the tweets.

But a year after the meme rolled through our collective conscience, shade balls are set to disappear from the surface of all of LADWP’s reservoirs except one. What happened?

A Temporary Solution

In 2008, LADWP dumped its first shade balls into the Ivanhoe drinking water reservoir in Silver Lake. The idea was to keep sunlight from reaching the water's surface and interacting with naturally-occurring bromide, creating a carcinogen called bromate. 

A year later, the agency added shade balls to Elysian Reservoir. In April 2012, Upper Stone Canyon got shade balls. In both cases, the point was to improve water quality by keeping sunlight off the water.

But LADWP knew the shade balls weren't a permanent solution, said Richard Harasick, the agency's director of water operations. That's because federal regulations require reservoirs containing treated drinking water to be covered -- and shade balls don't count. It was only a matter of time until LADWP had to comply. 

Last fall, LADWP started removing shade balls from Elysian. Upper Stone Canyon is next. In both cases, the balls will be replaced with floating covers. A third reservoir, Ivanhoe, will be closed permanently.

That leaves the L.A. Reservoir — located in LADWP's Van Norman Complex in Sylmar — as the only one with shade balls. That's because building a cover there was $300 million -- prohibitively expensive, Harasick said. Instead, LADWP is disinfecting the water as it leaves the reservoir. The shade balls will stay because they are so effective at preventing bromate formation and algae growth. "It has worked exactly as we planned it to work," he said.

#shadeballs

Harasick said the popularity of the shade balls video caught him off-guard. "I’ve never done more interviews on any single subject than this," he said, laughing.

Indeed, the meme spread to include neighboring agencies that use shade balls, too. In June 2015, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District uploaded a video of a million shade balls cascading into Reservoir #2. The video is mesmerizing – an 18-wheeler backed up to the edge of a reservoir opens its back door, and the balls flow out like an oil spill, pooling on the surface of the water.

Two months later, when the Los Angeles shade ball frenzy began, Las Virgenes’ video began to go viral, racking up 4.5 million views.

But unlike in most of L.A.'s reservoirs, the shade balls aren't going away any time soon in Reservoir #2. That’s because Reservoir #2 holds recycled water, not drinking water, so Las Virgenes isn’t required to cover it. The shade balls improve water quality, as they do in LA.

Pedersen said he’s been “really happy” with how well the balls are working so far and has no plans to remove them. 

The
The "Wilson" shade ball at Reservoir #2, Las Virgenes Municipal Water District.
Dave Pedersen

He’s also gotten a little bit of shade ball fever – he had a shade ball made up to look like Wilson, the volleyball that a very-lonely Tom Hanks befriended in the movie “Castaway.” It’s now sitting on his desk, smiling at him.