World / Science & Health

Who's behind the 96 million 'shade balls' rolled into LA's reservoirs?

by Eric Roston

Bloomberg

Shade balls?

They emerged from obscurity Tuesday morning on the Internet with all the markings of the buzzphrase of the year — the term for them is shady and enigmatic, and to stoke juvenile social media glee, it has the word “balls” in it. Yet they are dead serious.

The shade balls of Los Angeles are 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter, hollow, polyethylene orbs made by XavierC, of Glendora, California; Artisan Screen Process, of Azuza, California; and Orange Products, of Allentown, Pennsylvania. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has now dumped 96 million balls into local reservoirs to reduce evaporation and block sunlight from encouraging algae growth and toxic chemical reactions. The balls are coated with a chemical that blocks ultraviolet light and helps the spheres last as long as 25 years. Las Virgenes, north of LA, now uses shade balls, too.

These are not your average Chuck E. Cheese’s ball-pit numbers. They are hermetically sealed, with water inside them as ballast, lest when the wind picks up “they’ll blow out, and you’ll be chasing them down the road,” said Sydney Chase, president of XavierC. You could drink the ballast — don’t want nonpotable water leaking into the reservoirs.

Chase is a 30-year veteran of manufacturing who left a $300,000 job to start XavierC. She sold her house to raise the capital to seed the company. “Either I’m going to end up under an overpass, or this is going to take off,” she recalled thinking. And as much fun as there is to have with “shade balls,” the company was founded for two serious reasons.

Chase calls her product “conservation balls,” because they can help keep reservoirs intact and clean. They are also seeing use on the tailing ponds where miners store contaminated water, to keep birds away from toxic agents, and to keep odors at bay in wastewater treatment facilities. They cost about 36 cents each to make. Chase declined to talk about XavierC’s financial performance.

The second reason is built into the company’s name. The “Xavier” is Xavier Castillo, who worked for 18 years in information technology at the Pomona-based Casa Colina physical rehabilitation center. Castillo, 47, survived a car accident at 27 that left him a quadriplegic. He and Chase met by chance four years ago, and he came on board when he learned she wanted to hire disabled veterans who had been having trouble finding work elsewhere. Factory work itself would be difficult for many of them, so Chase envisioned a company at which vets could perform administrative, marketing, and other tasks on a computer. Castillo controls his own computer using his neck and shoulder muscles, Chase says.

Her involvement can get a lot more personal. At a business meeting earlier this year, Castillo started having a seizure and stopped breathing, and Chase resuscitated him: “I was shaking so hard, I could barely talk,” she said.

The second of 10 children in a family where some have served in the military, Chase says she was moved by the images of America’s war-injured. “Honestly, it’s just seeing these kids coming home,” she said. “They’re very physical people, and you come back not able to do things you were made to do. It just kind of broke my heart.’

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has encouraged the nation’s water managers in recent years to find ways to cover or contain their resources, to prevent sunlight from reacting with chlorine and possibly creating carcinogens, says Ed Osann, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The shade balls shouldn’t pose a pollution problem in themselves, he said, since “everything that comes in contact with drinking water has to be a certified material.” Chase says the balls are designed not to degrade.

The shade balls are a novel way to protect drinking water, and Californians’ latest attempt to adjust to their four-year drought. But they reflect a larger question: What can we do to the earth, its water, air, and land, to mitigate climate-related changes?

Today it is shade balls. In the future we might have to send millions of reflective 1-inch (2½-cm) metal-walled balloons up to the Arctic to act as synthetic sea ice to bounce sunlight away and slow the melting. (A fanciful but actual suggestion made by the inventor of the hydrogen bomb.)

LA’s shade balls experiment is geo-engineering writ small. Something to consider, as elsewhere scientists struggle to understand geo-engineering writ large.