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A reservoir goes undercover

The DWP dumps about 400,000 black balls into the water to block formation of the carcinogen bromate.

June 10, 2008|Francisco Vara-Orta | Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power dropped the ball Monday.

Actually, it dropped 400,000 of them.

The agency started dumping thousands of floating plastic balls into Ivanhoe Reservoir -- the dwarf sibling next door to Silver Lake Reservoir, the neighborhood's crown jewel -- to protect the drinking water supply needed for summer.

The water needs to be shaded because when sunlight mixes with the bromide and chlorine in Ivanhoe's water, the carcinogen bromate forms, said Pankaj Parekh, DWP's director for water quality compliance. Bromide is naturally present in groundwater and chlorine is used to kill bacteria, he said, but sunlight is the final ingredient in the potentially harmful mix.

The DWP drop was designed to stop the three from mingling in the 10-acre, 58-million-gallon Ivanhoe Reservoir. The 102-year-old facility serves about 600,000 customers downtown and in South Los Angeles.

Elected officials, community activists and two dozen DWP officials and maintenance workers grabbed a few balls out of a white tub and tossed them into the aquamarine pool after a brief news conference.

Pebble-heavy "plops" permeated the laughter of smiling onlookers. City Councilman Tom LaBonge shouted, "For quality of water for all of Los Angeles!" with each of three balls he chucked into the water.

At a signal from DWP General Manager David Nahai, a dozen crew members began opening dozens of white nylon bags that lined the reservoir. Each bag bulged with 2,100 balls.

Resembling a slithering stream of oversized caviar, the black balls rolled thunderously down the reservoir's slopes. "Water quality doesn't get more exciting than this," Marina J.F. Busatto, a DWP biologist, said with a smile to a colleague as she helped slide ball-filled bags to the reservoir's edge.

Within 30 minutes, a portion cordoned off in Ivanhoe was blanketed with the black balls.

"It looks like an oil spill," quipped Marilyn Oliver, 63, who has lived on a hill overlooking the reservoir for 45 years. But, she quickly added, "it's OK because it's temporary and the water quality is more important than the looks."

Open reservoirs exposed to sunlight are now rare. The area's reservoirs -- Silver Lake, Ivanhoe and Elysian -- first registered elevated levels of bromate between June and October 2007.

But state health officials said the dangers were minimal because bromate poses a small cancer risk only after consumed daily over a lifetime.

Silver Lake Reservoir's contaminated water was drained this year. The reservoir doesn't need covering because the recently replenished supply is not chlorinated until after it leaves its basin.

But the discovery of bromate prompted officials to look for ways of shading Elysian and Ivanhoe. A tarp would have been too expensive and a metal cover would take too long to install, especially in a year of drought.

So one of the DWP's biologists, Brian White, suggested "bird balls," commonly used by airports to prevent birds from congregating in wet areas alongside runways.

DWP officials and Orange Products, the Allentown, Pa., company that produces the balls, said this was the first time a major utility had used the globes to solve a water- quality problem for a drinking supply. White said Orange Products is the only company in the United States that could manufacture the balls, which are environmentally safe for drinking water and approved by NSF International, a government-sanctioned, nonprofit water quality organization.

The balls, which cost 40 cents each, are made of polyethylene. The coating contains carbon. Black is the only color strong enough to deflect ultraviolet rays, said Paul Sachdev, president of Orange Products.

The company is producing about 100,000 balls a day -- its largest order this summer -- to meet DWP's order of 6.5 million. Each bag will be dumped as it arrives, with Ivanhoe getting the first batches until fully covered.

The DWP's Parekh noted that the "balls require no construction, no parts, no labor, no maintenance."

Ivanhoe and Elysian reservoirs will be blanketed by about 3 million balls each for about four years, Parekh said. They will be removed when a covered replacement reservoir is built near Griffith Park's Travel Town area.

LaBonge acknowledged that the black layer wasn't as pretty as the old face of Ivanhoe, but said its beauty would come back when the area's reservoirs are retired and probably made into recreational areas that the public is working with officials to design.

"We know the beauty and purpose underneath," he said.

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francisco.varaorta@latimes.com

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