Desalination and South Australia's Gulf ecosystems.

Update 2001

The debate still rages on the impacts of the proposed Point Lowly desalination plant and port near Whalla in the Spencer Gulf in South Australia. A world renowned oceanographer says BHP Billiton is attempting to violate environmental legislation with its proposal for a desalination plant in South Australia's Upper Spencer Gulf.

This area is the only known mass spawning aggregatio site for giant cuttlefish in the world and is in the sensitive and naturally highly saline inverse estuary system of the upper Spencer gulf. This incredible esuary system is critical nursery and spawning habitat for a range of fish species and is very popular and important to both recreational and commercial fishers.

Latest news indicates that the Giant cuttlefish population is more vulnerable than ever before with leading scientists suggesting numbers of cuttlefish returning to spawn may be down a whopping 90% of last year and that egg attachment problems may be part of the problem.

While the sensitive upper gulf with it's natural high salinity and limited flushing/mixing would seem to most logical thinkers to be amongst the worst possible locations for a major desal plant that would emit highy saline waste water contaninated by the various chemicals used to clean the desal membranes there are better options available further south. For example the Alternative Port Working Party suggest a site further south (read more) and environmentalists suggest that not expanding the Roxby uranium mine negating the need for the desal plant or building at open ocean sites near ceduna may be the better options.

According to this recently published Eyre Peninsula Natural Resources Management report there is 'inadequate data on biodiversity and habitat values, particularly fauna' for the coastal area around Port Bonython. It also identifies the desal plant brine outfall as a threat to the cuttlefish breeding area, along with dredging for future port facilities.

A world renowned oceanographer says the proposed plant would be an 'environmental breach' and BHP Billiton is attempting to violate environmental legislation with its proposal for a desalination plant in South Australia's Upper Spencer Gulf. Read more here.

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A great overview of the situation is available on the cuttlefish country website at

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Historical (pre 2009) page contents:

Click here to jump to our desal background and resources section. Click here for the Latest news/updates

When most people hear about desalination they think of a magical solution to the current water crisis. Few are yet considering the impacts of these massive factories on the marine environment. Even if you ignored the huge amount of power required to run desalination plants and the associated impacts e.g. greenhouse gas output (the power use for the proposed Whyalla plant is likely to be comparable to that of a major regional town) the impact on South Australia's sensitive Gulf ecosystems is potentially disastrous.

Fishers for Conservation (FFC) is very concerned about proposals for a massive desalination plant at Point Bonython (Whyalla) in the upper Spencer Gulf and another proposed for Pt Stanvac in Adelaide. FFC is working with other concerned community groups such as Spencer Gulf Environmental Alliance (SGEA) and the Friends of Gulf St Vincent (FOGSV) to draw attention to the negative effects this plant is likely to have on the gulf ecosystem and the popular recreational fishery in the area.

Whyalla is known as the home of Snapper fishing and the proposed desalination plant threatens the fishery. (photo: David Muirhead)

Intended to be the largest in the Southern hemisphere the proposed Whyalla desalination plant  is expected to provide 120 Megalitres (ML) of water every day for BHPB to use as part of the planned expansion of its Roxby Downs operation, as well as 60 ML a day earmarked for domestic use on the Eyre Peninsula.

This would require about 360 ML of sea water to be drawn from the Gulf each day to produce 180 ML of fresh water. Billions of planktonic organisms and larvae will be sucked into the plant, with few if any, surviving the process. According to BHP representatives the intake pipe is likely to be situated in a sheltered nearshore inside a gyre (eddy) identified by the companies modeling. Such a gyre would be likely to concentrate plankton including fish larvae and food. The larvae of recreationally and commercially important fish species such as King George whiting, prawns, blue crabs, garfish and snapper will be killed every day and the effects of this on recruitment of our prized recreational fish species are poorly understood. Based on overseas experience, larger species such as protected Sea Turtles, Syngnathids (seahorses and pipefish) and the Giant Cuttlefish could also be killed by these plants.

Under the current Whyalla proposal, hyper-saline water would be pumped back into the upper Spencer Gulf where BHPB contends it would be dispersed by natural oceanographic processes. The actual amount of brine pumped into the upper gulf may be much more than the current projection depending on demands for potable water for Eyre Peninsula and projected future demand of an extra 80ML for the mine.
The marine environment in the upper Spencer Gulf is characterized by shallow depths, naturally high salinity, dodge tides, low wave action and restricted water exchange with surrounding waters.

King George Whiting are one of the species facing potential recruitment failure due to larvae and habitat being killed or affected by the proposed desalination plant (photo: David Muirhead)

FFC is yet to be convinced that natural processes will provide sufficient mixing. This represents an unacceptable risk of ecological damage to the unique environment of upper Spencer Gulf and the substantial marine based industries that it supports.
The saline water discharged will be heavier than the natural waters of the Gulf and will sink to the bottom potentially creating an anoxic ‘dead zone’ of reduced and changed biological activity. Consequently, the sea floor habitat (including commercially important grounds for the state’s prawn fishery and scale fish fishery could be devastated by excessively high salt concentrations, as well as from chemicals in the saline waste stream added during the desalination process.
Academics are not confident the modeling used by BHPB to date can accurately predict how the constant daily discharge will interact with the already naturally highly saline bottom waters and the highly prized endemic biological assemblages or the seasonal/long-term effects on the salinity of the upper Gulf.

SA’s Gulfs are comprised of diverse assemblages of species, many of which are found nowhere else on the planet and the upper Spencer Gulf is no exception. The yet to be enacted marine planning process in SA rates this proposed outfall area as highly sensitive and, if it were law, would only allow impacts that the environment could recover from in a day or two to occur in the area.

According to Flinders University Marine Biologist Dr Toby Bolton:
"It is difficult to think of a more inappropriate location for a desalination plant in SA. The State Government and BHPB’s 'Memorandum of Understanding' (M.o.U.) states that the proposed plant and pipeline must be developed without material impact on the environment, especially the marine environment but it is inconceivable that a desalination plant of the scale proposed for Point Bonython can be developed without significant environmental impact.”

A scientific paper regarding the impacts of desalination has rated tropical marine habitats in order of sensitivity to desal operations (Einav et al 2002). Mangrove areas and seagrass beds are rated as number 1 and 3 respectively (tropical coral reefs are number 2 and do not occur in SA). This study is not directly comparable as SA species living in the upper gulf are adapted to a higher than open ocean salinity environment but it is likely that similar processes could apply here. Mangroves and seagrass environments occur extensively in the upper Spencer gulf and are critically important to the life cycle of many of the popular recreational fish species in the region. The upper Spencer Gulf area has high biodiversity, already high salinity, low mixing and is home to the only major giant cuttlefish spawning aggregation in the world. Are Gulf waters an appropriate area to locate a major desalination plant?

"It’s clear that this site has been chosen to reduce capital costs to BHPB in the length of pipeline back to the mine site rather than to provide any credible environmental protection. BHPB will turn all of this water into radioactive waste at the Roxby mine” ACF Campaigner David Noonan.

Upper Spencer Gulf is home to an expanding marine-based ecotourism industry, primarily due to the unique presence of enormous spawning aggregations of the charismatic Australian Giant Cuttlefish, Sepia apama. A phenomena known nowhere else in the world, major aggregations of this iconic species occur only 200m from the proposed outfall for the recently built pilot desalination plant. Giant cuttlefish provide food for snapper, dolphins and other species and are important to ecosystem function in the gulf.

Clearly, the upper Spencer Gulf is a sensitive region of high ecological and economic importance that requires prudent management.

Giant cuttlefish are important for ecotourism and as a food source for snapper and other recreationally caught fish - the intake and outlet pipes for the the proposed pilot desal plant are only 200 m from the only large spawning site for this species known in the world (photos Ron and Valerie taylor and Steve Leske)

Other organisations such as the Commercial Prawn and Sardine fishing industry, the Conservation Council of South Australia and the Australian Conservation Foundation are also expressing concern regarding this proposal. If the desal plant must go ahead, then it’s important that the intakes and outfalls are situated in an area where they will not have a high impact on biodiversity and recreational fish stocks. Alternative locations off SA's west coast could be more appropriate and well within the budget of one of the worlds resource giants, building the worlds biggest uranium mine.

FFC, SGEA, FOGSV and marine scientists will be continuing to speak out and actively lobby the State and federal Governments to protect our Gulfs and and ensure they get the recognition and protection they need.

An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) regarding the Roxby Mine expansion including the desalination plant is required by both the state and federal governments prior to approval. This EIS will be put out for 8 weeks of public scrutiny. BHP say this may occur within months.

You can help! Send a letter to the relevant Ministers now expressing your concern regarding this development proposal. FFC has provided a template letter to help get you started on our email campaigns page and will continue to keep you informed of developments.


Latest News / Updates


Giant Cuttlefish on ABC 'catalyst' - well worth a watch 24 Sept 09

There’s one place in the world where a quarter of a million of Giant Australian Cuttlefish migrate each year for a spectacular love-in. The problem is, their unique nursery may face a mortal threat.

Desal site 'worst possible'

Source: ABC News Online 6 Aug 2009

A South Australian parliamentary committee has unanimously recommended that a desalination plant which BHP Billiton wants to build on upper Spencer Gulf be put elsewhere.

The company wants to build the plant at Point Lowly near Whyalla. It is an essential part of its expansion plans for the Olympic Dam uranium and copper mine in the state's far north. Presiding member of the Environment, Resources and Development Committee Lyn Breuer says it has been told Point Lowly would be the worst possible site for a plant to serve BHP Billiton's water needs for the proposed expansion. Ms Breuer says the main concern about Point Lowly is that brine from the plant would not disperse properly and would damage marine life, including cuttlefish breeding areas. The Opposition's conservation spokeswoman, Michelle Lensink, says evidence to the committee indicates that brine from a desalination plant could cause an environmental disaster. "The key species that we're concerned about is the giant Australian cuttlefish, but we're also concerned about the western prawn," she said. Greens MP Mark Parnell says a desalination plant should not go ahead at the expense of the environment. "Point Lowly and the cuttlefish are too important to sacrifice, BHP needs to go back to the drawing board and find a better location," he said. A spokesman for BHP Billiton says it will consider the report's recommendations. The Premier, Mike Rann, has been unavailable for comment.


Scientist sounds desal warning for Gulf waters

Source: ABC News Online 8 Oct 2008

A marine biologist as warned that by-products from desalination could do irreversible harm to the ecology of Saint Vincent and Spencer Gulfs in South Australia. Dr Kirsten Benkendorff from Flinders University in Adelaide says brine from desalination plants could harm commercial fisheries and marine life. She has given evidence to State Parliament's Environment Resources and Development Committee, which is examining proposed desalination plants at Port Stanvac in Adelaide and at Point Lowly, near Whyalla. Dr Benkendorff says monitoring the impact of desalination will require long-term studies both before and after the plants are established. "The impacts that you might see on the Gulf systems could be slowly accumulating," she said. "It doesn't then become all ... that obvious at what point do we actually regard this as a catastrophe."

Desal plant under the microscope

Source: Adelaide Now 6 Oct 2008

The State Government has submitted plans for SA's new desalination plant to the Federal Government to ensure the project meets environmental standards. Acting Water Security Minister Paul Holloway said no issues of national significance had yet been identified but plans for the plant were referred to the commonwealth for a final determination. "The desalination plant is subject to the highest level of environmental scrutiny in this state," Mr Holloway said. "About 30 environmental studies are under way, including a suite of marine surveys, acoustic studies, hydrodynamic modelling, noise and vibration assessments and flora and fauna studies." Mr Holloway said the State Government wanted to ensure the design, construction and ongoing operation of the desalination plant met high environmental standards. It is hoped the new plant will be running by December 2010, supplying 25 per cent of Adelaide's water needs.

OneSteel considers Whyalla desal plant

Source: ABC News Online 26 Sep 2008

The operator of the Whyalla Steelworks, OneSteel, is investigating the viability of installing a desalination plant at its site to reduce its reliance on River Murray water. OneSteel says it used more water than expected last financial year because of its dust reduction initiative at Project Magnet. The general manager of business sustainability, Jim White, says the desalination plant and other water-saving initiatives will help OneSteel meet its targets this year. Mr White says the brine output from the plant will not damage the environment. "We have a large saltwater pond system on site, so brine dispersal is very easy for us and really minimises the impact on this site and we're engaged with the EPA [Environment Protection Authority] at the moment and going through the process of getting the appropriate approvals," he said.

Flinders University Scientists release research findings raising concern over desalination impacts in SA gulfs

Research findings include identification of Pt Stanvac as an intertidal invertebrate biodiversty hotspot and concerns over the suitability of SA gulf waters for brine dumping from desaination plants: Problems include Dodge tides and the lack of exchange of Gulf waters with the ocean during summer months. Impacts on biodiversity, fish and fishing could be severe and are uncertain.

Article from the South & South-West Messenger Newspaper 25Mar08

Marine life at risk near Stanvac


Dr Jochem Kaempf (at back) and Dr Kirsten Benkendorff. Picture: Cathy Mundy

THE proposed desalination plant at Port Stanvac could kill all marine life in Gulf St Vincent, two Flinders University scientists have warned.

Oceanographer Dr Jochen Kaempf and marine biologist Dr Kirsten Benkendorff say the plant could have a dire impact on the environment and the fishing industry.

However, Water Security Minister Karlene Maywald has promised the State Government will not compromise the environment in the Gulf.

Dr Kaempf said the relatively shallow water and lack of tidal movement in the gulf would make it hard to disperse the brine waste product produced by the plant.

He said it was the low oxygen content of the brine that would threaten marine species.

"When you put it back in to the ocean it reduces oxygen levels," he said.

"Without oxygen the surrounding marine life will die."

Dr Benkendorff said increased salinity levels would wipe out the gulf's large squid population.

"Squids lay their eggs on the ocean floor. I know for certain that (increased salinity) would kill the eggs," she said.

The pair presented their concerns to a crowd of about 75 people at a community forum organised by Onkaparinga Council earlier this month.

Onkaparinga Mayor Lorraine Rosenberg said many people were sceptical about whether Port Stanvac was the correct site. "I still think we're pretty much in the dark. There's still a lot of information to be learned," she said.

Wildcatch Fisheries SA general manager Neil MacDonald said the environmental impact of the plant was a concern for the fishing industry.

"We're certainly much more comfortable with (the plant being located in) more open spaces," he said.

Mr MacDonald said "millions of dollars" of fish were harvested in Gulf St Vincent including about 50 per cent of the state's garfish and calamari.

"We're certainly interested in seeing what the environmental consequences are."

In an emailed statement, water minister Karlene Maywald said there were numerous individuals and agencies involved in the environmental study, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Coast Protection Branch, Planning SA, South Australian Research and Development Institute Aquatic Sciences and the Coastal Oceanography Group at the University of Western Australia.

"Full environmental and planning approvals for the plant will be sought as work on the detailed design continues," she said.

"The marine studies will be completed by the end of 2008, though the Government is already incorporating early results into its ongoing project planning."

If constructed, the desalination plant will have the capacity to supply about 150 megalitres of water a day or 25 per cent of Adelaide's water consumption.

The State Government is currently conducting an environmental impact study that is expected to be completed by the end of the year. If given the go ahead, the plant will be in operation by 2012.

A pilot plant a small test version of the proposed plant which is currently being constructed on the site is expected to be complete in July. An info night will be held at South Adelaide FC, Lovelock Drv, Monday, March 31, at 7.30pm.


Information and resources:

Trial plant EPBC Act referral

Map of Whyalla trial plant location

The footprint of the desalination processes on the environment - including ranking of habitat sensitivity

Letter to the SA Minister for the Environment regarding the proposed Whyalla desalination plant - Dr. Toby Bolton Lecturer in Marine Biology, Flinders University—Lincoln Marine Science Center,

Nature Conservation Council of NSW submission regarding Sydney desalination plant

Sydney Coastal Councils factsheet - What is desalination?

Have some more references that are relevant? Let us know


Horseshoe reef and Desalination - desalination for Adelaide getting some early attention in parliament:

Excerpt from a speech in parliament made by the Hon Ms Gay Thompson (Reynell):

Source: Hansard, House of Assembly, Thursday 3rd May

The matter I want principally to address today relates to the Horseshoe Reef at Christies Beach. Late last year, the Hon. Dr Don Hopgood convened a public meeting, entitled, `Christies: can its reef be saved?', in his role as the chair of the Christies Creek Task Force. The meeting was advertised in the local press, and I sent information to people in the southern community who I knew would be interested. As parliament was sitting, I was, unfortunately, unable to attend. However, my staff represented me and provided a compare­hensive report on the evening, which I understand was well attended and informative. In addition to a panel discussion, attendees heard from Professor Anthony Cheshire, a marine ecologist who is, amongst other things, chair of the Reef Health Scientific Steering Committee; and also from Steven Gatti, a geologist, who is currently the technical manager of the Adelaide Mount Lofty Ranges Natural Resources Management Board. Southern Australia has a diverse, important coastal eco­system. We have four times as many types of coral as are found in the Great Barrier Reef. We have 1 100 species of seaweed, 60 per cent of which are endemic to the area. The ecosystems are highly productive, too. Every single square metre of marine flora converts up to 6 grams of carbon each and every day. As important as our metropolitan reefs are, though, they are in danger of being lost for future generations. As populations increase, so do stormwater and wastewater. It is indeed fortunate that the Waterproofing the South strategy, drawing on the Waterproofing Adelaide strategy, was initiated some four years ago. In the past 50 years, about 40 per cent of the seagrass coverage along metropolitan coastlines has been lost as the population impacts on our marine ecosystems. A survey of metropolitan reefs was carried out in 1996, which found that Horseshoe Reef was one of the best reefs along our city's coastline. By 2006, a significant loss of quality of habitat had taken place and, in the survey of that year, Horseshoe Reef was noted as one of the worst. Christie Creek, which flows into Horseshoe Bay close to the reef, has an average yearly flow of 2.7 gigalitres. Some 60 per cent of the creek's catchment area is urbanised, with 33 per cent of the land being used for rural, grazing and residential purposes. The rest is made up of bushlands and horticultural use. Largely, the bushlands are severely degraded. Suburban beaches along Adelaide have long been dredged, but the huge dredge of 1997 did immense damage to the reef. A large plume followed the dredge which, in turn, affected the reef. Until that point Horseshoe Reef had been able to withstand smaller plumes, but the damage of 1997 was a bridge too far. This indicates the need to be very careful about what we do around Horseshoe Reef and in Gulf St Vincent overall. The damage to Horseshoe Reef is an indicator for us to not immediately accede to the demands of people who want to see a desalination plant at Port Stanvac. There may be a desalination plant one day, but I want a complete, thorough and extensive study undertaken before any more damage is done to the valuable coastline in my electorate and nearby areas.