Google has agreed to use South Carolina groundwater only as a last resort, staving off a rare review of a state regulators' decision to allow the internet giant to draw 549 million gallons per year.
That water would come from a major aquifer beneath Charleston.
The consent agreement with the Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center was reached Thursday morning as the S.C. Health and Environmental Control Board met to review an earlier staff approval of a permit to draw that much groundwater.
The board had agreed to the group's request for review after an advisory committee of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments voted to deny the Google permit and the league sought the review to stop it.
The company will only pull groundwater "when all other supplies are exhausted," said Catherine Wannamaker, a law center attorney.
Laura Cantral, the league's executive director, said public opposition to the permit was a game changer.
"Because of the hundreds of people who took action, we were able to work with DHEC and Google to improve practices that will better conserve groundwater from a critically important aquifer — an outcome worth celebrating," she said.
"We are committed to reforming our state's weak policies to protect our groundwater from similar threats as our region grows,” Cantral said.
A Google spokeswoman confirmed the company had reached an agreement with the conservation groups and the group's appeal of the permit had been withdrawn.
"We are proud of our collaborative efforts to ensure responsible stewardship of Lowcountry natural resources and look forward to continued partnership on these efforts with state, local and community groups in the years to come,” said spokeswoman Jacinda Mein.
With the settlement, the company won DHEC approval to triple the gallons it draws in order to help cool servers for a $600 million expansion of its operation near Moncks Corner.
The newly permitted Google withdrawal would be enough per day to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools. A utility waterline is under construction that would provide that much surface water to the company — at a cost.
While approving the permit, DHEC staff required Google to "make all efforts to reduce the regular demand on groundwater; reserve the groundwater for peak demand times or as a backup water supply; and, develop alternative water sources."
Public concern has risen about groundwater supplies because residents and industries in South Carolina already are drawing water from wells faster than it replenishes below the surface. Water levels are dropping in many of the monitoring wells and have never really recovered from the drought 20 years ago, according to state monitors.