Impacts of desalination plant discharges on the marine environment: a critical review of published studies

Roberts, David A., Johnston, Emma L., and Knott, Nathan A. (2010) Impacts of desalination plant discharges on the marine environment: a critical review of published studies. Water Research, 44 (18). pp. 5117-5128.

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Desalination of seawater is an increasingly common means by which nations satisfy demand for water. Desalination has a long history in the Middle East and Mediterranean, but expanding capacities can be found in the United States, Europe and Australia. There is therefore increasing global interest in understanding the environmental impacts of desalination plants and their discharges on the marine environment. Here we review environmental, ecological and toxicological research in this arena including monitoring and assessment of water quality and ecological attributes in receiving environments. The greatest environmental and ecological impacts have occurred around older multi-stage flash (MSF) plants discharging to water bodies with little flushing. These discharge scenarios can lead to substantial increases in salinity and temperature, and the accumulation of metals, hydrocarbons and toxic anti-fouling compounds in receiving waters. Experiments in the field and laboratory clearly demonstrate the potential for acute and chronic toxicity, and small-scale alterations to community structure following exposures to environmentally realistic concentrations of desalination brines. A clear consensus across many of the reviewed articles is that discharge site selection is the primary factor that determines the extent of ecological impacts of desalination plants. Ecological monitoring studies have found variable effects ranging from no significant impacts to benthic communities, through to widespread alterations to community structure in seagrass, coral reef and soft-sediment ecosystems when discharges are released to poorly flushed environments. In most other cases environmental effects appear to be limited to within 10 s of meters of outfalls. It must be noted that a large proportion of the published work is descriptive and provides little quantitative data that we could assess independently. Many of the monitoring studies lacked sufficient detail with respect to study design and statistical analyses, making conclusive interpretation of results difficult. It is clear that greater clarity and improved methodologies are required in the assessment of the ecological impacts of desalination plants. It is imperative to employ Before–After, Control-Impact monitoring designs with adequate replication, and multiple independent reference locations to assess potential impacts adequately.

Item ID: 27206
Item Type: Article (Research - C1)
ISSN: 1879-2448
Keywords: desalination; marine; ecological; toxicology; environmental; impact
Date Deposited: 03 Jun 2013 04:21
FoR Codes: 05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050204 Environmental Impact Assessment @ 50%
05 ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCES > 0502 Environmental Science and Management > 050205 Environmental Management @ 50%
SEO Codes: 96 ENVIRONMENT > 9605 Ecosystem Assessment and Management > 960507 Ecosystem Assessment and Management of Marine Environments @ 50%
96 ENVIRONMENT > 9611 Physical and Chemical Conditions of Water > 961104 Physical and Chemical Conditions of Water in Marine Environments @ 50%
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