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Chronic effects of brine discharge form large-scale seawater reverse osmosis desalination facilities on benthic bacteria

Frank, Hila, Fussmann, Katarina E., Rahav, Eyal, Bar Zeev, Edo
Water research 2019 v.151 pp. 478-487
bacteria, bacterial communities, bacterial growth, biochemical pathways, biodegradation, community structure, decision making, desalination, environmental impact, eutrophication, long term effects, mixing, reverse osmosis, salinity, seawater, water temperature
Seawater desalination facilities continuously discharge hyper-saline brine into the coastal environment which often flows as a concentrated plume over the seafloor, hence possibly impacting benthic microorganisms. Yet, the effects of brine discharge from desalination plants on benthic bacteria, key players in biodegradation of organic material and nutrient recycling is unknown. In this study, we tested the chronic (years) effects of brine discharge from three large-scale desalination facilities on the abundance, metabolic activity and community composition of benthic bacteria. To this end, four sampling campaigns were carried at the outfall areas of the Ashkelon, Sorek and Hadera desalination facilities. The effects of the brine were compared to corresponding reference stations which were not influenced by the brine (i.e., water temperature and salinity). Our sampling data indicate that bacterial abundance and activity that includes bacterial growth efficiency were 1.3–2.6-fold higher at the outfall area than the reference station. Concomitant analysis pointed out that the bacterial community structure at the brine discharge area was also different than the reference station, yet varied between each desalination facility. Our results demonstrate that the impact of brine effluent from desalination facilities on benthic bacteria are site-specific and localized (<1.4 Km2) around the discharge point. Namely, that the effects on benthic bacteria are prominent at the brine mixing zone and change according to the discharge method used to disperse the brine as well as local stressors (e.g., eutrophication and elevated water temperature). Our results contribute new insights on the effects of desalination-brine to benthic microbes, while providing scientifically-based aspects on the ecological impacts of brine dispersion for decision makers.