Los Angeles Water Conservation Project Runs Into Unexpected Problems

Scientists in L.A. have recently evaluated a project that involved the covering of a lake with plastic balls designed to prevent the evaporation of its water. While initial results appeared conclusive, the solution has proven to be surprisingly problematic upon closer inspection.

This once promising project now looks to be dead in the water. The water-saving plastic balls, designed to prevent the evaporation of water from an open rainwater reservoir, have been found to have some unexpectedly negative side effects.

The project dates back to 2015, when 96 million of the floating plastic spheres were spread across the surface of the man-made body of water in Los Angeles. The scientists behind the innovative initiative hoped to be able to prevent the evaporation of millions of cubic metres of water. At first glance, it seems to have gone without a hitch, having saved somewhere in the region of 1.7 million cubic metres from floating up into the atmosphere. Encouraging results on paper, but the reality of the situation is not so simple nor positive for the environment.

According to the results of a survey published in the journal Nature Sustainability, those behind the plan failed to take into account one of the most important factors: the environmental cost of the plastic balls themselves. A cost that far outweighs their benefits, according to researchers at Imperial College London, MIT and Twente University in the Netherlands.

A disappointing result

Taking into account the amount of water and electricity used to extract the oil and natural gas involved in the production of these plastic spheres, scientists estimate that the process involves just over a million cubic metres of water.

This volume is far from a drop in the ocean of a resource that is becoming harder and harder to manage. Indeed, given this immense cost to the environment, scientists have pointed out that the project has amounted to little more than a transfer of environmental damage from one area to another, rather than any actual relief.

Questions over engineering solutions

'We’re very good at developing short-term solutions, but we often forget the long term, secondary consequences of our actions. That’s how the engineering community has always approached problem-solving: by resolving one issue only to create a new one somewhere else,' lamented Kaveh Madani, environmentalist at Imperial College London.

Yet another issue highlighted by scientists is the worrying impact of the plastic spheres on water temperature and bacterial proliferation; consequences with disastrous implications for aquatic life.

Learning from mistakes

As problematic as it has proven to be, the researchers behind the evaluation of the project are quick to point out that it has not been entirely useless in terms of advancing knowledge in the field of water protection.

'We’re not saying that the anti-sun balls are bad and shouldn’t be used, we’re simply underlining the fact that the environmental cost should be taken into account along with the benefits,' Madani clarified. Despite the failure of this particular project, then, lessons learnt here are expected to help similar projects to stay afloat in the future.

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