California fights drought with crazy shade balls

My friend just told me about this story yesterday and it certainly qualifies as transforming the body of the earth. I went off, ranting about why we come up with solutions crazier and more convoluted than the problem we’re trying to solve.

Here’s the pitch for why these are so awesome:

They’re designed to keep water from evaporating and are expected to conserve 300 million gallons per year. And at a cost of $35 million, they’re about $250 million cheaper than the alternative, a tarp-like covering.

Conserving Water?
First of all I’m not sure what it means that this is “conserving” 300 million gallons. When I conserve water, I might take shorter showers, flush less or water my lawn less. I’m using less water. This gimmick is preventing evaporation, but a very basic understanding of the water cycle should cause us to ask how this equals “conserving.”

Evaporated water doesn’t disappear. It forms clouds and eventually returns to earth. Some of the evaporation probably ends up in the ocean and is no longer available to us. If we are using more than the water cycle can replenish, then we have a problem, and no amount of shade balls will fix the problem.

The same would apply somewhat to my personal water usage, except that water is bound up in a system where it has to be processed through treatment plants as it runs off my lawn, gets flushed or goes down the drain. The conservation is keeping the water from entering that treatment system.

The Cost of What?
The second piece of this equation is that the shade balls only cost $35 million compared to $250 million for a tarp to cover the reservoir. Setting aside the question of why we’re covering this reservoir and what the real problem is, what do these costs really mean?

This may be a bit of a rabbit hole, but how do we figure these costs and what do they mean? In our economy, this dollar amount only signifies the current price of producing an object with whatever raw materials are required. Or what people will pay for something like that. Plastic balls are made from petroleum and are therefore tied to the price of oil. The price of oil… well, I don’t know how they come up with that honestly. What I do know is that the number they come up with has less to do with the hard facts of production prices and actual value than it does how the markets feel and the pressures of various government and economic entities.

What is not included in the price of shade balls is the ecological cost to the system required to extract petroleum and turn it into plastic pellets and then melt into a black spheroid. Each step along the way has environmental costs to air and water quality and ecological costs to the natural system impacted by extraction, transportation, factories and more transportation.

So, not only do shade balls SOUND ridiculous, scratch the surface and you realize that these kinds of solutions are often a way to unconsciously mask the deeper problems and issues at hand.

Originally published at