Google gets approval to triple its use of groundwater from Lowcountry aquifer

Updated: Oct. 11, 2019 at 3:58 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - Google’s data center in Berkeley County has been given the go ahead to use millions of gallons of groundwater to cool its servers, a decision environmental groups and others argue could damage one of the region’s limited sources of groundwater.

South Carolina’s Department of Health and Environmental Control sent the company a letter Wednesday authorizing Google’s use of 549 million gallons of water per year from the McQueen Branch aquifer, also known as Middendorf.

With plans to expand the Berkeley County data center, the company has said they anticipate needing more water for cooling its high-performance servers. Google argues its pursuit of triple the amount of water from the Middendorf aquifer is fueled by caution. The company wants to avoid the risk of operational failure.

However, critics argue the increased access isn’t necessary and could harm the precious resource that supplies drinking water to thousands of Lowcountry residents.

“Google prides itself on being a member of the Lowcountry community, but the company isn’t listening to the concerns of its neighbors. Google has not provided transparency around its water usage, nor shown a commitment to reducing its dependency on these finite resources. We believe if any company can step up and be a good steward, it’s Google,” said a spokesperson for the Coastal Conservation League, an environmental advocacy group located in Charleston. “The Conservation League continues to oppose the permit to triple its groundwater withdrawal and we are working to determine our course of action so that we can protect our region’s limited groundwater resources.”

The CCL contends Google has access to existing alternatives. The company already uses water from Berkeley County Water and Sanitation to cool its servers. The Conservation League suggested an agreement between Charleston Water System and Berkeley County could achieve an amount of surplus water that should satisfy Google’s need without upping its permitted groundwater withdrawal.

“After signing an agreement with Charleston Water System, Berkeley County is now building necessary infrastructure to bring 5 million more gallons of water each day to its system. Berkeley County, by their own assurances, has obtained all environmental permits and property easements for the project and has begun installing the underground line,” according to the CCL. “We know that some or all of that water is meant for Google and will likely be readily available between April-July 2020.”

But Google maintains its sustainable use of water to cool its data centers, though critics have argued the company has not been transparent about its practices.

"We strive to build sustainability into everything that we do, and our data centers are no different. We’ve been proud to call South Carolina home for more than ten years, and we’re proud of the investments that we’ve made here, including more than $2 billion in capital investment, supporting employment opportunities, municipal improvements, educational programs and local nonprofits,” said a Google spokesperson. “As part of the Berkeley County community, we are committed to responsible water stewardship, and we look forward to continued productive partnerships with state and local officials and community members.”

According to a “fact sheet” produced by Google in February, the company believes its use of the aquifer is sustainable because it represents less than 1% of the total McQueen Branch aquifer flow in the data center area.

“The data center has a policy to prioritize BCWS water ahead of groundwater, and we’ve developed a Best Management Practices for Groundwater guide with the SC Department of Health & Environmental Control (SC-DHEC). From the start, Google has been committed to saving water by operating our data centers in a highly efficient manner,” according to Google’s website.

Other groups have been supportive of the company’s expansion and DHEC’s decision to increase Google’s water permit.

“The Berkeley Chamber of Commerce applauds DHEC’s decision to provide Google with an increased water permit, allowing its announced $600 million expansion to continue to move forward. For more than a decade, Google has been a corporate champion in our community through its support of our citizens, our schools and our environment. We look forward to their continued investments in Berkeley County,” said Elaine Morgan, the chief executive officer of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce.

Other local communities rely on the Middendorf aquifer to supply drinking water and support for emergency operations. Mount Pleasant Waterworks also applied for a permit renewal to siphon 3,953 million gallons of water per year from the resource.

The amount requested was consistent with previous permits the water authority had held. However, DHEC reduced that amount by 57 percent. Officials with Mount Pleasant Waterworks argued the reduction will cause MPW to purchase more water from the Charleston Water System, raising customer rates and stranding $50 million dollars in infrastructure projects, which will likely lead to weakened bond ratings.

In an updated permit request, MPW reduced its requested withdrawal limit by 39%. The general manager of the water authority said this was an effort to continue the utility’s dedication to mindfully managing the resource. However, Clay Duffie also expressed frustration over DHEC’s permitting practices.

A press release from MPW said, “DHEC regulates based on a plan which lacks triggers and does not adequately define reasonable use.”

Duffy maintained he wants to see more definition behind such regulatory measures.

“We have to plan for the future,” Duffie said. “When you get issued a 5-year permit that does not give you the capacity to meet your current demands, that’s a problem because I’ve got to plan 5 years, 10 years, 15, 20 years down the road. We’ve got to make sure those resources are available for the future, and that those resources are sustainable.”

In a letter to DHEC officials last July, Duffie questioned how the department’s recommendation for reduction was calculated and suggested the department’s plans could result in MPW not being able to meet its revenue projections or financial obligations.

“This is a very important aquifer. There are multiple users,” Duffie said. “Instead of one entity taking a hit in terms of trying to protect the aquifer, it should be all for one, one for all kind of deal where we share those reductions, if they are required.”

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