Desalination of seawater accounts for a worldwide water production of about 70 million cubic meters per day. Despite the many benefits the technology has to offer, there are concerns over potential negative impacts on the environment. A key issue that has not been thoroughly investigated is the impact of effluent discharge on coastal marine ecosystems. This project will provide quantitative scientific assessment of the potential impacts of effluent discharge on coastal ecosystems in California and assess how such data influences public perception and public policy. The team of social and natural scientists has experience related to coastal pollution, California coastal ecology, marine biogeochemistry, toxicology, environmental policy and economics, water policy and management, and utility-stakeholder communications. Established relations with desalination facilities in California will ensure an integrative framework for research on the human and environmental aspects related to the increasing abundance of desalination facilities along the California coast, and contribute to both securing freshwater resources and sustaining productive and healthy coastal communities and coastal environments.

The objectives of this project are to (1) determine how effluent discharges from facilities for seawater desalination by reverse osmosis affect key organisms of the California coastal ecosystem with implications for ecosystem structure and function, (2) describe the spatial extent of the effect for different discharge schemes, and (3) evaluate how results from this and similar environmental impact studies influence public perception and decision making regarding desalination plant construction and operation. The project will combine in situ field chemical and biological measurements, controlled laboratory experiments, and assessments of how people and organizations interpret and use this data for making environmentally sound and sustainable decisions. Field studies will be performed at three different desalination plants to identify and quantify the possible effects of stressors associated with effluent discharge on local biota. Observed effects will be validated through controlled laboratory bioassay experiments. The scientific results will be communicated to the general public and decision makers to assess how scientific data is used by different stakeholders.

This project is supported under NSF's Coastal SEES (Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability) program.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Ocean Sciences (OCE)
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Michael Sieracki
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University of California Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz
United States
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