Google, which often likes to tout its environmental friendliness, is at the center of a controversy over plans to increase its daily use of groundwater from an aquifer in Berkeley County, South Carolina to cool one of its massive data centers there.
The company itself maintains that the concerns are unfounded and not based on scientific fact.
Google currently has a permit to tap 500,000 gallons of water a day from the Charleston aquifer that is also used as a drinking water source by the Town of Mount Pleasant, in South Carolina. Google also has a permit to use up to 4 million gallons of surface water daily from local sources there.
Google has put in a request seeking to use up to 1.5 million gallons of water daily from the aquifer, or three times what it uses currently, leading to protests from town officials, The Post and Courier reported this week.
Officials are concerned that increased use of the aquifer could deplete its water reserves. They want Google to hold off on drawing more water from the aquifer until the U.S. Geological Survey can complete a groundwater model update.
They also want more time to properly develop and vet a long proposed regional groundwater management plan to ensure equitable use of groundwater among stakeholders in the region. That plan has to be approved by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), which is also responsible for approving Google's application for increased ground water use.
A hearing on the groundwater management plan is scheduled for later this month. Google will learn the fate of its request to withdraw more water daily from the aquifer only if and after the DHEC plan is approved.
Mount Pleasant Waterworks (MPW) and the Coastal Conservation League, both of whom oppose Google's plan to draw more water from the aquifer want the company to explore other alternatives.
Google is well known for using other sources—such as grey water and seawater—for cooling its datacenters in other parts of the country and world. MPW and the Conservation League want the company to explore such alternatives more thoroughly and leave the aquifer's resources primarily for human consumption.
"The Charleston Aquifer (previously known as the Middendorf) is a pristine groundwater source that’s over 83 million years old," the Conservation League notes on its site. "This should be conserved to the highest extent possible, whereby its primary use should be human consumption at a sustainable rate," the league said in connection with Google's request.
In an opinion piece last month in the Post and Courier, Clay Duffie, the general of MPW said that utility itself has taken steps to reduce its demand on the aquifer over the years because of water table declines. MPW signed a water purchase agreement with another water system back in 1995 to reduce the amount of water it takes from the aquifer in order to ensure that it remains a secure and sustainable resource for the future.
"The water MPW withdraws from the aquifer supplies clean, safe drinking water and protects public health—sustaining life," Duffie had noted. "We hope the Regional Groundwater Management Plan will require that using groundwater for single pass cooling for computers should be the last resort, only if no other water source is reasonably available."
According to Duffie, Google has refused to share its analysis to see if other water sources could be used to cool its data center. "We know there are," Duffie claimed.
In a statement, Google said it is committed to responsible use of water and other environmental resources. "Our extensive research and modeling of local groundwater resources shows that our proposed use would not have a negative impact on the McQueen branch aquifer," the statement said. "Google employees are residents of Berkeley and Charleston Counties and we care deeply about our communities, water and the environment."
Separately, a Google spokesman said the company strongly denies suggestions that it is not being environmentally conscious. Google has performed extensive due diligence to ensure that the proposed groundwater withdrawal is sustainable. As part of this, the company has conducted long-term pumping tests and computer-aided projections that are similar to those used by the USGS.
According to the spokesman, Google's tests show that there is some 200 million gallons of water that flow through the aquifer daily. Google's proposed use of 1.5 million gallons is less than one percent of the flow and would have no significant impact on the aquifer, the spokesman claimed. Any ground water that is not withdrawn would simply empty into the ocean anyway, he said.
"Google has also performed computer simulations of what it would look like were we to withdraw 10 million gallons of water every day for 25 years, under abnormally dry aquifer recharge conditions." Results of the tests show negligible effects on the aquifer, he claimed.