The Problem With Pools

Southern California’s most enduring lifestyle trope is also a major contributor to our state’s worsening water emergency. A homeowner recounts his lonely battle to turn his seldom-used pool from blue to green . . . and finds an unexpected happy ending.
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Forgive me. I have sinned.

I have sinned against nature, humanity, against good (but not common) sense.

I have wasted water. So much water.

And now we’re running out.

Every five to ten days, depending on the weather, I add water to my swimming pool. There is no leak. The water just evaporates. The hotter and windier the weather, the faster it vanishes, literally, into thin air. 

An average pool, 33 by 18 feet, loses about a quarter of an inch of water every day—approximately 600 gallons per week. My pool is about 40 percent smaller, but the idea’s the same: it’s a huge waste. 

But I have no choice. 

If I don’t level-up the water, and it falls below the intake, the filter system starts sucking air and makes an other-worldly slurping screech, loud enough to wake me (and my neighbors) in the middle of the night, when the pump is cheapest to run. 

So that’s my burden. Filling. Filling.

Sisyphus with a water spigot. 

And I’ve been doing it for 25 years.

Just like everyone else with a swimming pool. 

According to a 2015 report from Metrostudy Inc., there are 1.18 million pools in the nation-state of California. About 70 percent are in Southern California. In Los Angeles, where swimming pools are as much a part of the cultural tapestry as palm trees, celebrities, and drought, there are an estimated quarter million private pools, according to Bloomberg.

That’s a lot of water. I’m no tree hugger, but it’s really fucking bugging me I’ve done the research. I can’t drain my pool. I can’t fill it with dirt. And I can’t cover it. For various reasons I will explain, there is no good solution I can find. 

Except one.

Honestly, it seems kind of crazy. But I think I’m going for it. 

Dustin Hoffman, as the shiftless Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate. Lazing around the family pool the summer after his graduation was Benjamin’s passive-aggressive rejection of his parents’ ambitions for him. (EMBASSY PICTURES CORPORATION/PHOTOFEST)

I ARRIVED IN CALIFORNIA in 1997 from the East Coast with a pocket full of serendipitous Hollywood dollars—another thread woven into our cultural tapestry: great good fortune. 

For the previous two decades, I’d been living in a restored brick row house in Washington, D.C. High ceilings. Original floors. Crack, hookers, homeless. By the time we added a stroller, the boho glam was wearing thin. Then I found myself in the wrong neighborhood one night and was beaten by a gaggle of shadowy figures. I vowed to find a way out.

A few months later, a magazine story I wrote was optioned for the movies. Shortly thereafter came another option and a first-look deal. 

I put most of the proceeds down on a house in San Diego. It wasn’t a big place: three beds, two baths, a pool. 

With the pool came that distinctly SoCal amenity, a pool house.  

The pool house became my office. Sitting here for the past 25 years, I’ve written a dozen books and scores of articles. I’ve done the hard work every day that has made my life satisfying, through good times and bad. I love these rooms. I’m here almost every day. I even work half a day on my birthday because this is what makes me happy. 

The swimming pool? 

In all that time, I’ve used the pool about 100 times. 

Here in coastal San Diego, it’s usually in the sixties and seventies, so the pool water is cold. It’s too expensive to heat (more climatic waste). The beach is close. And it turned out we were a sports family; during my son’s years at home, we were always traveling to games and tournaments. Nobody had time to lounge around the pool. 

And, truly, though I love the way the pool sparkles in the sunlight, I’m kind of like, Fuck swimming, you know? I think this attitude stems from my experience as a child at summer camp, when I was overweight, and the swimming counselors were overzealous. 

Even though my swimming pool has not often been used, I’ve still had to keep it maintained and filled. I’ve had to resurface the pool and the attendant deck—when I bought the house, the whole area was an eyesore. Several times, I’ve bought new pumps, new filters, new automatic sweepers, new hoses for the sweepers (apparently the raccoons like to bite the hoses to find water, which I really don’t understand, since the hose is already floating in several thousand gallons of water—I thought animals were smarter). 

I’ve had the same pool guy for 24 years. He visits twice a month. He’s given me a fair price. Let’s say his name: Phil Gardiner. A more reliable and affable guy you could not meet. Over the decades, we’ve gone gray together. He doesn’t swim either.

The thing is, when you’re lucky enough to find yourself typing in your dream office in your dream house, and you even manage to keep it after the divorce, you can’t expect everything to be perfect. 

And so I’ve rationalized: the pool house comes with the pool. 

And then I fill it up again.

ON THOSE OCCASIONS when I’m struggling with my sins, I’m often reminded of the aerial photos of the SoCal suburbs I’ve seen: a patchwork of fenced-in oases of private space, the heart of each a cool body of glistening aquamarine. In one of the many locations around the globe where water has always been a precious commodity, it seems natural that the swimming pool—the average containing about 15,000 gallons of water—would become a sign of status and good living.

In Hollywood movies from Sunset Boulevard to Boogie Nights, the swimming pool is never just a pool but a literal and figurative mirror of the culture.

The earliest mention of a swimming pool in the L.A. Times’s archives is a reference, in a January 1914 item, to a “pretentious mansion” of 35 rooms being built in Beverly Hills. It had 12 bathrooms and a pool. And a three-mile frontage.

In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford built Pickfair, the model upon which all subsequent celebrity fantasy digs would lean. It included a 100-by-55-foot pool with a sandy beach on one side. Not to be outdone, William Randolph Hearst built two iconic pools at San Simeon in 1924, complete with marble colonnades and the facade of a Greco-Roman temple.

As World War II ended and the baby boom began, America got to work building its consumer economy with inexpensive land and cheap mortgages from the GI Bill. Along the way, the development of more-advanced technologies would contribute to a pool-building boom.

In the ensuing years, rounded pools would replace boxy ones; and then, kidney-shaped would become the rage, followed with fanfare by the introduction of the infinity pool. 

 “The flowering of the Southern California lifestyle, especially after World War II, made the swimming pool the ornament of the Good Life, not the Unreachable Life,” writes Pat Morrison, who for nearly 50 years has chronicled Los Angeles life for the L.A. Times and KPCC. “As with a convertible or a college education, your regular Joe could now afford a pool.”

And so it was that the swimming pool joined the Pacific Ocean, outlaw motorcycle culture, beach volleyball, palm trees, valet parking, the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier, and the Real Housewives of Orange County in the iconography of Southern California. 

As portrayed by Hollywood, of course, a pool is never just a pool, but a literal and figurative mirror of the culture. In Sunset Boulevard (1950), a screenwriter, played by William Holden, lured into working on an impossible script by a fading movie star, floats dead in the pool behind her mansion, a watery symbol of his doomed aspirations. In The Graduate (1967), Dustin Hoffman’s character sunbathes, clueless and enervated, on a raft in his parents’ pool in Pasadena, his future as blank as the cloudless sky above. John Cheever’s short story The Swimmer (1968), which became a cult classic film starring Burt Lancaster, is a study of suburban malaise in the late 1960s through the lens of the ubiquitous backyard pool. Tim Curry’s Frank N. Furter, in his bustier and bicep-length fishnet gloves, paddles an inner tube around a glowing pool, singing “Don’t Dream It, Be It, as the prelude to a watery orgy with a corps of beautiful boys in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). Likewise, Morrison writes, “The crowded, chlorinated, deep-end water in Boogie Nights (1997) memorializes porn, pools, and the 1970s San Fernando Valley, the suburban birthplace of a pool paradise as close as your back door.” 

Cristin Milioti and Andy Samberg in a promotional photo for the 2020 comedy Palm Springs. (COURTESY HULU)

Later would come David Hockney’s ever-collectible pools on canvas and his newly restored mural on the bottom of the Roosevelt Hotel pool in Hollywood; the nightclubs centered around pools at the Mondrian and the Standard hotels, a trend possibly inspired by ordinances ending smoking indoors at bars and restaurants; the empty pools and outcast skateboarders of Lords of Dogtown (2005); hip-hop music videos; MTV’s Cribs . . .  

As Jerry Scoggins sings in the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71):

Swimmin’ pools, movie stars.

This is us. 

TODAY, EVERYONE KNOWS California faces a critical shortage of water and that climate change makes it worse—the hotter it is, the faster the water evaporates, the more fresh water we need to pump out of the already diminished water table and reservoirs, the dryer the earth becomes. (According to scientists, our land mass is actually shriveling and sinking.)  Last summer, researchers found, the heat-driven atmospheric “thirst” in the western portion of the U.S. reached the same level as during the Dust Bowl summer of 1936—another moment in history when the signs of Armageddon were drawing nigh.

Though December’s unexpected surge of record-breaking rain and snow eased drought conditions somewhat, dry weather soon returned. The months of January and February 2022 were the driest ever recorded in most of California, and state water officials are now expecting a third year of severe drought, the shrinking water supplies fueling the threat of extreme wildfire. 

Coming out of California’s traditional winter rainy season, says State Water Resources Control Board deputy director Erik Ekdahl, we’ve had the driest winter in California in “more than 100 years of records, almost by an order of four.” These dry months follow the driest 22-year period in the American Southwest in 1,200 years—a megadrought that researchers say has been greatly intensified by climate change and the release of greenhouse gases. 

 In late April, Southern California officials took the unprecedented step of declaring a water-shortage emergency and ordered outdoor usage restricted, starting June 1, to just one day a week for about six-million residents in parts of Los Angeles, Ventura, and San Bernardino counties. And yet, in 2021, the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety issued 2,878 permits for new pool construction. And over the past eight years, even as the drought worsened, the number of permits issued has steadily risen. The 2021 number is double that from 2013.

I LIVE ALONE, EXCEPT for the occasional visits by friends and family. I don’t let the faucet run when I brush my teeth. I wash my face every morning and evening in cold water (I replaced the tank heater with a tankless one to save energy), take showers under five minutes, use the dishwasher once every two weeks, do two loads of laundry every two weeks, and let the yellow mellow before flushing. 

Even so, according to my water bill, I used 98 HCF (hundred cubic feet) of water last year. A single HCF is approximately equal to 748 gallons. That means I used 73,304 gallons. 

That’s 200 gallons a day.

Photographer Tim Street-Porter shot this homage to David Hockney’s A Bigger Splash at the William Cody Glass House in Palm Springs. (PHOTOGRAPH BY STREET PORTER)

According to a 2015 study by the nonprofit Public Policy Institute of California, Californians average 146 gallons a day per capita. Part of my water goes to landscaping. About 25 percent of my property is xeriscaped and irrigated. Aside from the rocks in the small front yard, the rest is natural canyon I do not irrigate. 

So it’s not hard to figure out that most of my water is going into the damn pool. And then, into thin air.

So what to do? 

My pool was dug into the side of a hill of California sage and coastal scrub more than 40 years ago by the previous owner. If I empty the pool, a small pond will develop at the bottom, a breeding ground for mosquitos and other nasty stuff. With the water gone, the pressure and weight would change; the gunite that forms the pool could begin to buckle. Or the land under the pool could shift. (From my house, the topography slopes downward to the flatlands and other houses.) 

Also, when emptied, in-ground pools made of gunite are susceptible to popping out of the ground.

Can you imagine? 

I could fill the pool with dirt—but here again, the change in weight and pressure could become a disastrous factor. And even if I did fill it in—killing about 6 percent of my home’s resale value—the pool is situated in such a way that the fill dirt would have to be carried from the front curb in five-gallon buckets, around the house, and down 27 steps. (Or perhaps lifted by crane?)

The next logical choice would seem to be a cover. I could deal with drilling the anchor holes in the deck. But you know what happens here when we leave our cars parked outside, right? The particulate haze that makes for such great sunsets leaves a fine snow of dust and crud on our cars and everything else. 

As it is now, the crud falls into the water, and is whisked away by the vacuum, into the filter. If I put a cover on the pool, all the crud would settle on the cover. Added to the dew and marine moisture we get most mornings—along with leaves and debris that tend to blow from the neighbors’ houses into my yard—the cover would become a dirty, soupy mess. Surely cleaning it would take a lot of water. And who would do it and for how much? 

Last summer, Phil the pool man suggested “liquid solar shade.” It costs about $45 a gallon. You pour in several ounces every two weeks, and the chemical formula, which is said to be nontoxic, creates an invisible, one-molecule-thick barrier that helps conserve water and retain heat. One company says its product reduces evaporation by up to 85 percent. 

This past summer was the hottest on record, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I had to refill the pool for 30 minutes every six or seven days.

WHEN PHIL AND I WERE having the conversation about covers last year, he mentioned something about “floating balls.” (We had a good laugh—by nature we both have solitary jobs and enjoy our occasional version of office comradery.) 

Apparently, you fill a body of water with these balls, and they function in the same manner as the liquid solar shade, floating like very large molecules, the combined mass creating a cover that cuts down evaporation. 

In the past 25 years, I’ve written a dozen books in my pool house. In all that time, I’ve used the swimming pool about 100 times.

I wondered: What if I got the balls and didn’t fill the entire pool area? If I filled it, say, 80 percent, maybe that way I would get year-round coverage, cut down dramatically on evaporation, and Phil could still do his job. The schmutz from the sky could be ameliorated by jostling the balls in place and letting the vacuum do the rest.

And I, along with a friend or loved one, could still have a piece of exposed pool to jump into those four days a year when the late-summer heat wave kicks in. Surely, floating around like a hippo on a hot day, the water line just beneath your nostrils, is one of the abiding pleasures of the SoCal lifestyle. 

TURNS OUT YOU CALL them shade balls, or solar shades, or segmented covers. 

Originally known as bird balls, they were developed more than 50 years ago to prevent birds from landing on toxic tailing ponds produced by mining operations. Since then, they’ve been used all over the world, mostly in municipal and industrial settings or in bodies of water near airports, to cut down on bird traffic around runways. When deployed, you get something that looks like a giant version of the ball pit at McDonald’s—only, instead of being Skittle-colored, they are more commonly manufactured in shades of gray. 

As it happens, shade balls are already in use around Los Angeles. In 2014 and 2015, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power put 96 million shade balls into its largest reservoir (Las Virgenes) in order to meet rules issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which requires large reservoirs of treated water to be covered. The LADWP says that in addition to reducing evaporation, the balls also reduce algae growth, cutting down on the need for chemical additives. While some of the balls were eventually removed, there are still 96 million in use at the Los Angeles Reservoir, which is said to be the largest deployment of shade balls on earth. 

Googling around, I found a firm called Advanced Water Treatment Technologies. They had three different kinds of balls. I filled out the contact form.

“HELLO MIKE: I APOLOGIZE but we are currently not selling our covers for residential purposes. If things change in the near future, I will be sure to let you know.” 

Not to be a butt pain, I replied, but what if I pay full freight for the product and will sign any needed liability waivers. There are millions of residential pools in California. Please. I’m wasting so much water. It’s becoming an obsession. 

OK, I didn’t write that last sentence. But it was not untrue.

Robert Infante was my correspondent. He replied ten minutes later from his office in Harlingen, Texas: 

“Hello Mike: I completely understand. I myself want nothing more than to be able to provide our products to anyone and everyone for all uses.”

First of all, he continued, the four-inch-diameter balls were out of favor. There had been incidents. Like the time high winds blew the balls out of a body of water and all over a highway. Also, being round, they don’t fit together perfectly; the shape is inefficient. 

Adding these floating rhomboids to the author’s pool dramatically reduced evaporation and cut his water usage by thousands of gallons. He left a pocket of water exposed for the occasional plunge. (COURTESY MIKE SAGER)

However, Infante continued, AWTT also carries two new designs. 

One is a flat-ish, flying-saucer-looking hexagonal tile, the Hexprotect Aqua. The other is a three-dimensional rhomboid shape, the Hexoshield Rhombo 66. Kind of rounded, kind of angular, it has 12 sides. The Rhombos—as Infante called them with perceptible affection—would be best for a residential pool. 

The problems with residential sales, he went on to explain, mostly involve scale and shipping. AWTT’s orders usually contain hundreds of thousands of units, even millions. They lose money on small lots. Plus, with shipping, I’d end up paying twice the amount for delivery as I’d pay for the Rhombos themselves. They hadn’t sold to a residential customer since before 2018, Infante said.

One concern keeping the Rhombos out of the home market, aside from the usual questions of liability, was bad publicity: a snide/humorous viral video on YouTube, made by a guy who overfilled a swimming pool with 10,000 shade balls (purchased from a different company) and then tried to swim in them, with results that put one in mind of the revived Jackass. So far, there have been 27 million views. Company-wide, the feeling seemed to be: Who needs this crap?

“On the brighter side,” Infante wrote in closing, “we have been in discussions with local distributors who might be willing to purchase from us in volume.”

Sensing this tiny crack of daylight, I pressed—leaning heavily on the notion that the company had a duty to humanity to make their product available to the masses . . . starting with me.

A few days later, I received an email.

“Hello, Mike: Thank you for your patience. I have received authorization from Matt to proceed with your quote.”

I WAS NOT EXPECTING a French accent.  

Matthieu Alirol, 41, is the president of AWTT and the inventor of the Rhombos. Raised in France, he received his master’s degree in polymer engineering from the University of Southern Mississippi. Early on, he decided to focus his attention on water.

Business brought him face to face with the balls for the first time. Though used all over the world, solar balls, even when weighted, tend to stack or roll in high winds. Arcane as it is to most of us, it is a problem that Alirol was trained to solve.

The Rhombos float lazily around the confines of my pool, pushed in different directions by the shifting breeze.

In 2007, he began developing what would become—after much playing around with plastic shapes in kiddie pools—the company’s line of products. “I was looking for geometry that would float, would not stack, and where each element would connect to each other and create a perfect cover with zero gap in it,” he says. 

Since incorporating in 2010, AWTT has supplied its segmented pool covers all over the world. Alirol says the company ships 1.5 million to 2 million square feet of them per year. Locally, you can find 7.5 million square feet of its top-of-the-line Rhombo Hexoshield 66 covering the Citrus Reservoir near the Redlands airport in San Bernardino. 

The Rhombos are four inches in diameter, with 12 rhomboid sides. When empty, each weighs 66 grams (about the weight of a C battery). When filled with water—which helps stabilize them in windy conditions—each is 266 grams, about half a pound. The Rhombos are molded of high-density polyethylene, the same thermoplastic polymer widely used for plastic bottles, milk jugs, cutting boards, and plumbing and irrigation pipe. To prevent the sun’s ultraviolet light from degrading the plastic, carbon is added to the molecular structure, giving the Rhombos a fashionable graphite color and a 20-year minimum life. The website promises a decrease in evaporation of “up to 99 percent.”

Alirol tells me: “If you have to refill once in the entire summer, I’d be surprised.”

THE RHOMBOS COST me about $1,000. Shipping from the factory in Tijuana, across the border, 29 miles away from my house, cost $1,200. This is one reason AWTT doesn’t usually sell to homeowners; whether shipping one or 26 pallets, the fee to cross the border is the same per load. 

In any case, my Rhombos were finally here—three huge blue industrial bags, six feet tall, each secured to its own 4-by-4-foot pallet. By the grace of God, someone had made a mistake and sent me the non-water-filled Rhombos. Without the water, the balls are 2,000 pounds lighter. Now, instead of needing an entire crew with buckets to hump them down from the street to the pool (or perhaps lifted by crane?), I could get by with two guys and garden-variety trash cans.

Six weeks later, I stand in the golden light of the California sunset, observing my Rhombos at work.  

It seemed kind of crazy at first—3,880 rhomboids floating in my pool—but actually, in situ, their graphite color beautifully compliments the color of the gunite, which has always mirrored the color of the ocean, a half mile distant as the seagull flies.  

In this time, I have grown fond of my Rhombos. They strike me as oddly beautiful, bringing to mind a sculptural installation, a study in shapes and kinetics, a harmonious melding of form and content.  

Given the 90 percent coverage—the extra room left for ease of cleaning and occasional dips—the Rhombos are in constant motion, floating around the confines of the pool, pushed in changing directions by the shifting breeze. Some Rhombos travel alone, others in pairs or triplets; others are rafted up like so many sailboats tied together at happy hour. As the day goes by, the Rhombos drift and kiss, giving off a plastic-y tinkle, a faint, musical note reminiscent of a wind chime. They combine and recombine into shifting rows and patterns, the multifaceted rhomboid faces angling off in different directions as the sun makes its way across the sky. 

Equally artful is my new water bill. As of this writing, in mid-April, in this record-setting dry season, I have yet to add even one drop of water to the pool. One year ago, during this payment period, I used 10,472 gallons of water; this time, I used 8,228. My neighborhood average is 28,993. If my math is correct, that’s a 24 percent decrease in my water usage. 

Watching the Rhombos play around the pool, the sun dropping behind the horizon, I feel the weight of my sins at last beginning to leave my shoulders.


EPILOGUE

The oldest pictures of swimming ever found by modern humans are the eight-thousand-year-old pictographs on cave walls in what is now the driest spot on Earth.

The Cave of Swimmers is located in the Sahara Desert, in southwest Egypt, near the border with Libya. The cave had long been known to Bedouin nomads, but it was first discovered by Europeans in October 1933, by the Hungarian-born desert mapper and explorer László Almásy.

As described by Howard Means in his book Splash, which looks at the cultural significance of swimming through the ages, Almásy “scrambled up some boulders, poked his head inside a previously unexplored cave fourteen meters by eight meters wide, and there, floating effortlessly on the rock wall, were multiple painted figures who gave every indication of being caught midstroke doing some highly relaxed version of the old-fashioned
doggy paddle.”
As history would have it, The Cave of Swimmers is featured prominently in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient. Almásy, the Hungarian, becomes the English Patient, played in the movie by Ralph Fiennes (1996). Recent excavations led by the National Geographic Society in another part of The Sahara, known as the “Great Sand Sea,” have turned up skeletal remains of crocodiles, elephants, giraffes, hippos, palm fronds, and six-foot Nile perch.

By all evidence, the Saraha Lifestyle may have once rivaled our own.


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