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Editorial: Google glistens in water agreement

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Google's Data Center near Mount Holly (copy) (copy) (copy) (copy)

Google has agreed to use groundwater from an important Lowcountry aquifer only as a last resort to cool servers at its sprawling Berkeley County data center, even though it is permitted to draw up to 1.5 million gallons per day. Above, an aerial view of the data center before work began on its latest expansion, valued at $600 million. File/Wade Spees/Staff

Hurrah for one of the world’s richest and most influential corporations, and hurrah for S.C. Coastal Conservation League, which reached a consent order Thursday to limit the amount of water Google can draw from a vital Lowcountry aquifer.

Though South Carolina is blessed with plenty of fresh water, it is vitally important to protect coastal groundwater supplies against overuse that could lead to saltwater intrusion. That ruins aquifers.

That’s why the Coastal Conservation League has challenged both Google and S.C. water regulators over permits that would have allowed the tech giant to draw up to 1.5 million gallons per day from the aquifer.​ And it’s why it was such a huge victory for the Lowcountry when the league reached a consent agreement with Google.

​Google will still have access to water in the Middendorf aquifer some 2,000 feet underground, but the agreement announced Thursday requires the company to make that a last resort, not a first. That should allow the vast underground reservoir to rebound from past overuse.

The agreement is also good news for Mount Pleasant, which draws a significant amount of its water from the same aquifer.

Protecting the aquifer is crucial because a “cone of depression” has developed in the Mount Pleasant area where water levels have been drawn down over decades, heightening the chance of saltwater intrusion. Additionally, hydrogeologists don’t fully understand the inner workings of the aquifer and thus how much water can be safely withdrawn.

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Computers get hot and must be cooled to function properly. And Google’s proprietary method of doing it is believed to be among the most efficient. Still it takes a lot of water, which is recirculated until it evaporates or until it is so heavily concentrated with minerals that it’s no longer effective.

Google buys most of its water from Berkeley County and evidently had relied on the aquifer primarily as a backup as it has expanded over the past decade. Only late last year did Google start pumping aquifer water, though it had been permitted up to 500,000 gallons daily for the past five years. But with its latest expansion, making the data center among Google’s five biggest, the tech giant sought to triple its permitted take to 1.5 million gallons daily, saying it was already buying all the water Berkeley County could deliver.

But Charleston Water System is running a new supply line to the area to help cope with demand in fast-growing Berkeley County, and by next summer, Google should be able to buy all the water it needs, mostly from surface sources.

The Coastal Conservation League and the Southern Environmental Law Center announced their consent agreement with Google just before state water regulators were scheduled to review Google’s already-granted permit for 1.5 million gallons daily, or 549 million gallons per year

Google will draw from the aquifer only when “all other supplies are exhausted,” attorney Catherine Wannamaker of the SELC told Post and Courier reporter Bo Petersen.

That’s a huge win for the Lowcountry; for Google, too, from a public relations standpoint. By agreeing to scrimp on its groundwater use, the tech giant can lay claim to the environmental mantra: “Think globally, act locally.”

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