California Is Throwing 'Shade Balls' at Its Drought Problem

August 12th 2015

Los Angeles is throwing some shade at its drought problem by filling the Los Angeles Reservoir with 20,000 small, floating, black plastic balls to reduce water evaporation, Mashable reports:

The move is an attempt to conserve 300 million gallons of water as the state continues to struggle with ongoing drought, according to L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, who made the announcement this week. The more than 20,000 "shade balls" released at the L.A. Reservoir sit on the water's surface to block sunlight-triggered chemical reactions. They also protect water from wind-blown dust, contain the rain water that falls onto the reservoir, and they can slow down evaporation after rainfall. Additionally, they protect the water quality to prevent algae growth, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“In the midst of California’s historic drought, it takes bold ingenuity to maximize my goals for water conservation,” Mayor Garcetti said in a news release. “This effort by LADWP is emblematic of the kind of the creative thinking we need to meet those challenges. Together, we’ve led the charge to cut our city’s water usage by 13 percent, and today we complete an infrastructure investment that saves our ratepayers millions and protects a vital source of drinking water for years to come."

The water conservation alternative is expected to save approximately $250 million and each "shade ball" costs about $0.36 each. In addition, they don't require any construction, labor, maintenance or parts to maintain drinking water. According to LADWP, the idea came from a now-retired LADWP biologist, who learned about the application of "bird balls" in ponds along airfield runways. These balls have also reduced evaporation on reservoir surfaces by 85 to 90 percent at other locations in Los Angeles.

California's limited water supply

On April 1, shortly after water officials measured the lowest Sierra Nevada snowpack in more than 60 years of record-keeping, California Gov. Jerry Brown announced the state's first ever mandatory drought restrictions, ordering towns and cities across the state to cut their water use by 25 percent. Under an April 18 plan, communities that use more water per capita (hot, dry, wealthy) will be subject to higher restrictions reaching 36 percent. The austerity of Brown's directives would seemingly correct for the failures of the 20 percent voluntary water cuts proposed over a year earlier. The minimal Sierra snowpack, which, according to the Los Angeles Times, accounts for 30 percent of the state's water, was the last straw. "We're standing on dry grass," Brown said in a field usually still blanketed with winter snow. "We should be standing on five feet of snow."

Golf Courses, Cemeteries, and Agriculture

Brown's order was aimed at urban life, specifically targeting municipalities, even though California's agriculture industry accounts for around 80 percent of the state's overall water usage. Cemeteries, golf courses, and other large swaths of greenery took hefty pay cuts––the restrictions will save an estimated 500 billion gallons of water in a little less than a year from now. To the ire of some observers, farmers, who use about four times the amount of water as that of urbanites, were largely exempt from the cuts. The argument goes that even a small change in the way farmers use water could save the state just as much as the urban cuts, but paring down the state's agriculture sector is a touchy subject as is.

Rising Food Prices

Although it only makes up for a small portion of California's $2 trillion economy, agriculture is indisputably important to both the state and the nation. California produces almost half of all U.S.-grown fruits, nuts, and vegetables, and any significant restrictions in the country's largest agriculture state would necessarily mean a squeeze in major crop exports such as milk, almonds, and grapes (wine), which together bring in nearly $20 billion. According to some estimates, 2014 saw about $2.2 billion lost to failed crops and higher water prices, and 17,100 agriculture jobs lost as a direct result. And if it keeps pace, grocery shoppers across the country could see steadily rising prices for the many food staples that are California exports.

Is California sinking?

According to new details outlined in a report by the investigative outlet Reveal, last summer saw the worst sinking that California has experienced in at least 50 years, but that's not the worst of it. Per the report: "This summer, all-time records are expected across the state as thousands of miles of land in the Central Valley and elsewhere sink."

It gets scarier, yet. Bafflingly, the report found that no state agency is effectively tracking sinking land, and only small amounts of taxpayer money have so far been devoted to studying it. Meanwhile, the state allows agricultural businesses to withhold information about crucial parts of their operations, which are likely directly tied to diminishing aquifers.

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