Water has always been an issue for California in general, and it has been an issue for Los Angeles in particular. As that city grew over the course of the 20th century, finding reliable supplies of water to supply the 4 million occupants grew rapidly in importance.
Roughly 30% of L.A.'s water comes from underground. The remainder is largely surface water, collected from ten basins East of the city, and as far away as the Colorado River. Ultimately, almost 90% of L.A.'s water is imported.
The prodigious effort to bring water to the city can be seriously undermined by evaporation when it is stored. It's estimated that California lost some 63 trillion gallons of water in 2013 and 2014, with a significant chunk of that due to evaporation.
Back in 1906, the city built two reservoirs, and they named one after the 1819 Sir Walter Scott novel, Ivanhoe. Located between Dodger Stadium and Griffith Park, the Ivanhoe reservoir is capable of holding some 3 million square meters of water at capacity.
It serves some 600,000 local customers. L.A. Water and Power estimates the water loss to evaporation here at some 30 million gallons annually.
In 2007, testing by the L.A. Department of Water and Power found potentially dangerous levels of bromate in the water of the Ivanhoe. Bromate is a suspected carcinogen, and it is not uncommon in municipal water systems. There are several ways bromate can be generated, the most common being the combining of bromide, which occurs naturally in groundwater, and ozone. It can also occur when water is treated with chlorine and subsequently exposed to sunlight.
The Ivanhoe reservoir is scheduled to be closed when it is replaced by a massive underground facility, the Headworks reservoir, currently under construction just north of Griffith Park.
All that aside, the Ivanhoe is still used for water storage, and in the midst of a prolonged drought, the city simply can't afford a significant loss to evaporation. L.A. enjoys a warm, relatively dry climate in the best of times. With temperatures on the rise and relative humidity taking a nosedive, evaporation becomes even more of a challenge. Combine evaporation with the bromate issue, and you've got a real need to innovate, and a need to do so quickly.
That's where the little black balls come in.
They're called "shade balls" in this application, but they are also known as bird balls. They're commonly used by airports to cover standing water located near runways, thereby dissuading birds from congregating and becoming a bird strike - a bird vs. aircraft incident.
The 4" black polyethylene spheres are hermetically sealed and partially filled with potable water, so that they won't blow away in strong wind. Biodegradable and coated with a UV blocking agent, they have a life expectancy of up to 25 years, and they cost about 36¢ each.
The concept is simple: the balls completely cover the surface of the reservoir, thereby placing a 4" insulating layer between the elements and the water. The black color reflects UV light, and it breaks up the bromate formation process. It took about 96 million of these guys to cover the Ivanhoe.
The balls are the brainchild of Sydney Chase, who got the concept brainstorm one day and then set out to make it a reality. Chase left a 30-year career in the manufacturing, operations, and business development of plastics and other commodities, and then sold her house to raise the funds needed to start XavierC, the company that makes pretty much nothing but what she calls "conservation balls."
In addition to the uses already cited, they're also employed at mining sites to cover waste and processing water ponds. The company's name stems from Creative Consultant Xavier Castillo, a disabled Veteran Chase met by chance and subsequently hired. Chase has a soft spot for wounded warriors, especially those who've had trouble finding steady employment elsewhere. As such, the company she created as a personal labor of love is truly a bastion of good works.