A 12-inch wide water pipe is expected to ease a two-year dispute over the internet giant Google's plan to pull 1.5 million more gallons of water per day from an already strained underground Charleston aquifer.

But a leading conservation group says it will continue to oppose a groundwater withdrawal permit for that amount, as well as other large scale groundwater withdrawal permits, unless the state changes how it evaluates the applications.

Berkeley County Water and Sanitation has signed a contract with Charleston Water System to pull five million gallons per day from a water system pipe on U.S. Highway 52 near the Google plant. The water would be treated surface water.

It will supplement water already provided to customers in the Mount Holly Commerce Park and "will provide increased and redundant capacity to our customers in the area," said Berkeley County spokeswoman Hannah Moldenhauer.

Google's data center is located at the park near Goose Creek. Google did not respond to emails asking for comment. Its officials have been tight-lipped about the Goose Creek operations, as they have been about other centers. The company has a non-disclosure agreement with Berkeley County Water and Sanitation. 

The company already draws groundwater and buys surface water from Berkeley Water and Sanitation to cool its servers. The company had to secure access to the extra water to go ahead with its $600 million service center expansion already under construction.

The expansion is planned to make the plant one of the company's five largest data server sites. Public and utility opposition in 2017 led Google to withdraw an earlier request for the same permit.

State Sen. Larry Grooms, R-Bonneau, said he expects the water line will mean Google won't need to draw more groundwater. But the company might continue to seek the controversial permit as a backup, he said.

The center is located in Grooms' district, and he has kept track of the issue.

"Google needed to have assurance it would have water," said Grooms.

Opposition

The importance of all this is that residents and industry already are taking out groundwater faster than it can replenish. The levels are dropping in many of the monitoring wells and have never really recovered from the drought 20 years ago, according to state monitors.

The drop in groundwater, along with more pressure on surface water supplies, has the makings of a water crisis.

Earlier this year, Google came back with the 1.5 million gallons per day request, this time with a more detailed study to support it.

"To keep this data center growing we need water to cool it," Google's groundwater permit application read. "We explored many options, from surface water to greywater (recycled wastewater), but determined each of these sources would be either insufficient in capacity, unreliable or take many years to access," the application says. 

The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, which has opened the permit application to public comment, said Monday the application has not been withdrawn.

Emily Cedzo, the air, water and public health projects director for the Charleston-based Coastal Conservation League, said the group — which led public opposition that scuttled a permit request in 2017 — continues to oppose a permit if conditions are not attached such as volume or length-of-use restrictions.

If DHEC doesn't comply, "there are multiple options," she said. The league has a history of making legal challenges to permits through state courts.

"We're gong to continue to work until permit plans are made of a higher standard," she said.

Groundwater problems

The controversy leaves DHEC in a sticky place if Google continues to seek the permit.

Aquifers are massive, interconnected layers underground saturated like sponges with water that seeps from the surface over the long term. They are essentially reserve tanks for huge spans of land across the Southeast. As they get drawn down, surface water sinks to fill the void.

Google's 125-page application this year includes 105 pages of analyses and tables laying out the contention that the data center can safely withdraw the 1.5 million gallons per day.

But the company's modeling for the study indicated that after 25 years, its water use would bring down the water level as much as five feet across a "cone" of the underground supply some 30 miles in diameter. That would comprise most of Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties.

The expected drawdown was less, though, and "is not anticipated to result in any adverse impact to the local water resources and existing groundwater users," the new permit application reads.

Tapping groundwater (copy)

Google has previously requested to tap an aquifer, a saturated layer of sediment underground, to help cool servers at its South Carolina operation in Goose Creek. Above: How an aquifer works. File/U.S. Geological Survey/Provided 

But in April, DHEC regulators cited sinking water levels in the same cone when it cut in half the permitted share of groundwater pulled by Mount Pleasant Waterworks, a move now being contested that could end up costing customers more at the tap in one of the fastest growing communities on the East Coast.

That reduction was one of the first real bites from a revamped state Water Bureau and came after Mount Pleasant Waterworks officials had led opposition to the earlier Google permit.

The justification for turning down the Waterworks "puts DHEC in a particularly vulnerable position" as it considers the new Google permit, Cedzo said.

In perspective, 1.5 million gallons per day is about enough to fill three Olympic-sized pools. As a comparison, the Santee Cooper Regional Water system has the capacity to draw 40 million gallons of surface water per day from Lake Moultrie.

About 350 industries, farms and other facilities across the state withdraw groundwater, more than 333 million gallons per day, according to U.S. Geological Survey records. But the state still lacks any real plan setting limits for withdrawals by large scale users such as Google.

The supply is shrinking, according to the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, which oversees monitoring wells. 

"I don't think any of us wants Google to withdraw water from the ground," Grooms said, and the company has emphasized its environmental conservation efforts.

"I think they'd want to avoid even the appearance of harming the environment," he added.

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Reach Bo Petersen at @bopete on Twitter or 843-937-5744.