Water woes forever
There was already a drought. Now the tech companies want water, too.
I got a good journalism lesson on one of my first work trips for the Los Angeles Times in 2009. My editor sent me to Mendota, California to visit farmers and write about a drought that farmers said was threatening farming operations. I loved the romance of walking over cracking brown dirt and talking to farmers; I wrote a sob story about just how much farmers in the Central Valley stood to lose.
After the story ran, I got dozens of emails and calls from fishermen who told me, basically, that I was an idiot. From their perspective, farmers were getting much more water than they deserved, and they were making this whole drought thing into much more of a big deal than it should have been. Farm water was being pumped from the San Joaquin Delta, they said, which essentially meant that fish had nowhere to spawn, which was why the California fishing industry was in even worse shape than farming. Even worse, farmers were planting water-intensive crops like almonds and then complaining that they didn’t have enough water, even though they had previously grown row crops like tomatoes on land that could lay fallow in case of drought.
Lesson learned—if you’re talking to people in a billion-dollar industry who trying to get funds and sympathy from lawmakers, don’t take what they have to say at face value. Everybody wants more water always. (I eventually went out on a salmon fishing boat two years later when the salmon fishery finally reopened to do a story about fishermen. (Despite two Dramamines and a seasickness bracelet, I still puked a lot.)
I thought a lot about that while reporting the data center story that I sent out yesterday. One issue that came up a lot in my reporting, but that didn’t make it in the story was how much water data centers consume. Data centers are essentially vast warehouses of computer equipment, so much that they are projected to account for four percent of total global energy demand by 2030, according to Anders Andrae, a senior expert on life cycle assessment at Huawei Technologies. They require billions of gallons of water a year to keep the computer equipment packed in long rows from overheating.
This Bloomberg story estimates that Google was granted 2.3 billion gallons of water for data centers in three states in 2019 alone. But it is nearly impossible to verify how much water the tech companies are using in each location because of various non-disclosure agreements they ask companies to sign because they claim water usage is a proprietary secret.
Google gets water for free from an aquifer in Berkeley County, South Carolina, the place Google also tried to claw back its taxes. But it’s almost impossible to know how much the company uses. “I think people were really frustrated with the secrecy,” says Emily Cezdo, senior program director of land, water, and wildlife at the Coastal Conservation League, which opposed a request by Google to draw more water from the aquifer.
In 2019, Google applied to triple its permitted withdrawal to 1.5 million gallons of groundwater a day. In May 2019, South Carolina also experienced the earliest 100 degree day on record, and a long streak of record heat temperatures. In almost all permit applications, users have to specify what their alternative sources of water are and how much of that water they use, but Google said that was proprietary information.
Even more troubling, when the state granted Google its permit in October of 2019, it denied a permit renewal application by Mount Pleasant Waterworks, which supplies drinking water to 35,000 households. This was concerning—why could a trillion-dollar company keep getting free water, but a utility that served households could not?
“We wrote editorials and complained about the unfairness of reducing Mount Pleasant’s drinking water capacity dramatically while tripling Google’s water for cooling computers,” Clay Duffie, the manager of Mount Pleasant Waterworks, told me. Residents flooded the state Department of Health and Environmental Control with comments protesting the decision.
Mount Pleasant appealed the decision last year, protesting that it was required to cut its water withdrawals by 57 percent while Google was allowed to triple its withdrawals. It recently reached an agreement with the state to voluntarily reduce its permitted withdrawal by 35 percent and pay for scientific research that will monitor wells and shed more light onto whether the aquifer is becoming depleted. But it’s frustrating to Duffie that Mount Pleasant had to go through a costly appeal process while Google was granted a permit despite not providing very much information to the state. “When you can’t get good information from people that are using a public resource, it’s hard to know what is really going on behind the scenes.”
This secrecy around water seems to be happening in many places where tech sets up data centers, including drought-plagued areas like Arizona and Texas. A few residents I interviewed in Prineville, Oregon, where Facebook and Apple have data centers, told me that wells were running dry in town, and they blamed Facebook for sucking up that water, something I could never verify. When I asked Facebook or the town of Prineville about the water, they told me that both data centers receive water from City of Prineville aquifers below the city, but that no decrease in water levels had been identified. Other aquifers in Central Oregon are seeing decreases in their aquifers, but not Prineville’s though, they said. It’s pretty hard to verify this—why would Prineville not see a decrease in water with two huge data centers when all its neighbors are?—but there’s no way to know how much water they are using unless the government shares that information, which the tech companies say is proprietary.
As the drought worsens in the U.S. West, it’s hard to imagine this isn’t going to become a bigger problem, especially since there are lots of data centers in places like California. Mesa, Arizona approved a data center last month that will use 1.75 million gallons of water every day, even though the Colorado River is so low that Arizona will likely see restrictions on water usage soon. It’s something to think about every time you save a photo to Google Drive or save documents in your DropBox. Tech is really good at convincing local officials that data centers are a good use of scarce water and other resources. What will this look like as even more things go online and more data centers pop up?
Odds and Ends
Thanks for everyone who signed up for this, and don’t worry, the emails aren’t going to be as frequent going forward. A few other things, in case you want more reading material!
—Rich Trumka, the head of the AFL-CIO, died yesterday. I traveled to Ohio to do a profile on him in 2012, and led the story with him hamming it up slurping pasta and giving off dad vibes. He was always very kind to me, especially when his entourage met me at the hotel where I was staying, a busted Super 8, because I was so worried I’d get in trouble for spending more than $50 on a motel.
—The jobs report released Friday once again showed a booming labor market. Read my TIME cover story from last week to understand why some employers may be having so much trouble finding workers.
—After I published the fun essay about trying to shop only at women-owned brands, a few of you sent me brands with women’s names, asking if they are actually run by men (Hello Josie’s Organics). Feel free to keep sending, I may make a list or database. Last week, Fortune published its Global 500, a list of the biggest 500 companies in the world. Guess what, the number of women running the Global 500 soared to an all-time high. What’s the number? Prepare to be depressed. It’s 23.