In August, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in the U.S. state
of California dumped 96 million black plastic balls into its primary drinking
water reservoir. It wasn’t an accident. The ball dump was the culmination of a
project to protect the city’s water supply.
Los Angeles, along with other communities throughout the western U.S.,
is scrambling to mitigate the impacts of an ongoing severe drought. About 14
percent of the contiguous United States was in severe to extreme drought as
of July 2015, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Five years earlier, that figure was 3 percent.
“By reducing evaporation, these shade balls will conserve 300 million gallons of water each year,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said at a press
conference in August. The balls cost less than US$35
million—a bargain compared to the US$300 million
price tag of a solid cover over the reservoir.
Other creative water-saving projects launched by
public and private organizations in the western U.S.
include using vibration monitoring to find and fix
leaks in aging infrastructure and building water treatment systems that return wastewater to drinkable
standards. These projects promise to save millions
of gallons of water while cutting costs and reducing
waste—but only if project teams secure the resources
and community support necessary to deliver them.
“People are trying to address water issues related to
the drought in a lot of different ways,” says Neil Grigg,
PhD, professor of engineering at Colorado State University and a member of the Colorado Water Innovation Cluster, which supports water conservation research projects.
Those ways include more traditional large-scale infrastructure projects, too.
The state of California is considering funding two projects to build new reservoirs, Sites Reservoir in the Sacramento Valley and Temperance Flat Dam on the
San Joaquin River, at a cost of US$6.5 billion. They would create about 2. 6 million
acre-feet of new storage capacity for Californians if approved by the legislature.
But not all drought-related projects are about people. The Nature Conservancy
of California works to create “pop-up habitats” for migrating birds affected by
drought and other factors. Volunteers provide information on bird sightings,
which the organization uses to determine exactly where habitats are needed so
migrating birds can rest and eat during their journey. The organization then
Workers release black shade balls into
a reservoir in Los Angeles, California, USA.
—Los Angeles Mayor