The hands-down phrase of the week in Los Angeles news is “shade balls.” On Monday, Mayor Eric Garcetti held a press conference in Sylmar, where he helped release 20,000 shade balls into the L.A. Reservoir.
The story quickly went everywhere.
The New York Times:
The Washington Post:
And a bunch of other places.
The story went viral because it combined three key elements: 1) A new angle on the drought, which is a major national story, 2) great video, and 3) a very sticky phrase.
— alexandra browne (@allexbrowne) August 13
And so on.
There's one problem with this story. It has, essentially, nothing to do with the drought. The L.A. Department of Water and Power has been using shade balls to cover up reservoirs since 2008, well before the drought began.
This is at the behest of the Environmental Protection Agency. The purpose of the balls is to prevent sunlight from interacting with chlorine to produce bromate, which is a suspected carcinogen — and look, you're already losing interest. Shade balls. Shade balls. Shade balls. In covering the L.A. Reservoir, the DWP was simply continuing a years-long effort to comply with EPA mandates.
So how did this become a drought story? Well, Garcetti's office cannily realized that a connection to the drought would provide an excellent hook, especially for national outlets which are always on the lookout for their next “kooky California” story. (“Look at those Californians! They're running out of water! Hahaha!”)
In their press release, Garcetti's office noted that the shade balls will save 300 million gallons of water a year, which otherwise would be lost to evaporation. Sounds like a lot. But how much is 300 million gallons of water worth?
About $2 million at current rates.
The cost of the shade balls? $34.5 million.
The shade balls must be replaced every 10 years, so figure about $20 million of water savings for every $34.5 million of balls.
In other words, if the point of this were to save water, it would be a very, very stupid idea. Even the DWP is not that stupid. It's doing this to comply with federal drinking water quality mandates.
Take out the drought angle and it's no longer a national story. How do we know this? Because the DWP has done this at three other reservoirs over the years without making national headlines, and without introducing “shade balls” into the vernacular.