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SC regulators tell Google 'yes' on groundwater plan but Mount Pleasant gets a 'no'

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Google has run a massive data center at the Mt. Holly Commerce Park in Moncks Corner for a decade. The center will be one of the company's five largest when it finishes an expansion of the facility next year. Brad Nettles/Staff

Google gets to pull the groundwater it wants. Mount Pleasant Waterworks doesn't.

That's the bottom line of two draft permits issued Thursday by the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

And it's expected to lead to more appeals and legal challenges.

DHEC regulators made the separate decisions based on access to Lowcountry surface water, not ground water. They found the waterworks can get the water it wants from the Charleston Water System utility without drawing more groundwater.

Google, meanwhile, can't get any more surface water to cool its servers after it expands operations at its data center in Goose Creek, according to the company's application.

But a connection is scheduled to be made to a Charleston Water System pipe since Google's application was submitted. The volume of water from that pipe is enough to supply what Google has said it needs.

DHEC regulators, though, said they were not able to take that into consideration.

"We're permitting based on the data available to us," said Alex Butler, DHEC's manager of water quantity permitting. "Based on Mount Pleasant Waterworks' own data (submitted with the application) they can use that alternative water supply to meet their demands."

For both the utility and the company, surface water must be bought; groundwater is free. 

Groundwater is a concern because residents and industry in South Carolina already are drawing it from wells faster than it can replenish below the surface. 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.

The Charleston Water System line and existing surface water lines "will continue to be the site's primary water resource," said Google spokeswoman Charlotte Smith.

"Groundwater is used to treat peak needs from time to time and for backup supply. Our data center must be planned to avert risk of unexpected supply disruptions," she said.

Mount Pleasant Waterworks Commission Chairman Rick Crosby said the decision means customer rates would go up, and said the commission would challenge the decision.

Waterworks General Manager Clay Duffie said the decision would leave the utility unable to meet peak demands without drawing from a surface source. 

"They are choosing computers over people," Duffie said. "Let us do our job for our community."

Groundwater is drawn from aquifers — 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.

The supply around Charleston is being drained enough that a "cone of depression" has formed, an area 30 miles in diameter at its widest point, where the water pressure dropped significantly and has not replenished. The Waterworks wells are on top of that cone. The Google well, which only began drawing in 2018, according to DHEC, is just off the edge.

The state does not have any real plan to limit withdrawals. Permit decisions are made largely on reasonable use, depending on the strain on the aquifer.

Google wants to be able to pull an additional 1.5 million gallons per day from the aquifer, enough to fill three Olympic-sized swimming pools. The water would be at least a back-up to cool servers installed for its $600 million service center expansion, which is already under construction.

The company also buys surface water from Berkeley Water and Sanitation to cool its servers, and its permit application said the utility can't provide any more. But after the application was submitted, the utility connected to 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.

The Waterworks asked to be able to pull about the same volume as Google's request. The waterworks already buys from Charleston Water System more than half of the 2.7 billion gallons per year it sells to 36,000 commercial and residential customers.

The Google application spurred controversy from environmental advocates and nearby groundwater users when it was filed in 2017, that was led by the waterworks. The Coastal Conservation League had advocated for DHEC to hold off on the permits until the agency received a new groundwater study that is still under way.

"The agency (DHEC) says Google 'should' make all efforts to reduce the amount of water it takes from the aquifer. Well, there’s a big difference between should and must," said Emily Cedzo, the Coastal Conservation League's air, water and public health projects director.

"Permit conditions should be mandated, not encouraged. This will be a tough permit for state regulators to enforce meaningfully, and DHEC is missing an opportunity to hold a global tech giant accountable for its outsized impact on an important public water source," she said.

The draft permits now goes to a committee of officials from local groundwater using utilities and companies for review to assure it was issued properly. The committee includes Duffie.

The committee or committee members can appeal either to the DHEC board and potentially to the state Administrative Law Court.

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

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