A growing number of coastal cities in California are exploring the potential for ocean desalination as a means to augment freshwater supplies. There are currently a number of desalination facilities proposed or operating in California. The process of desalination most commonly utilizes reverse osmosis (RO) to remove salts from groundwater, reclaimed water, and seawater. This process results in production of hypersaline reject brine. This reject brine may be discharged into the marine environment, sometimes in combination with discharge from a sewage treatment plant or power plant effluent. Typical RO reject brine produced using 100% seawater can have approximately twice the original salt content of seawater.
In order to ensure that brine discharges do not pose risk to coastal receiving waters, it is anticipated that desalination plants will be required to monitor effluent toxicity. Monitoring requirements will likely include testing for effluent toxicity using some combination of the short-term chronic toxicity test protocols listed in the 2009 California Ocean Plan (SWRCB, 2009).
While the tests listed in the Ocean Plan have been the subject of ongoing research, no comprehensive studies of the effects of hyper-salinity have been conducted with all seven toxicity test organisms (nine protocols when including sand dollar and urchin fertilization endpoints). The results from these tests will allow determination of the toxicity of hypersaline brine in the absence of any additional toxic constituents that may be produced during the desalination process. These results provide resource managers with background information to facilitate interpretation of toxicity test results from desalination plant effluent testing and permitting of desalination facilities. The results will also be used in the development of an amendment to the California Ocean Plan that addresses impacts to marine life from intakes and discharges from desalination facilities.