As one of the world’s biggest, brainiest and wealthiest corporations, Google has options for getting the water it needs to cool its data centers. And now that Charleston Water System and Berkeley Water and Sanitation are bringing a pipeline close to Google’s Berkeley County data center, the computing giant should take the high road and buy what it needs on the open market rather than pumping it from deep underground.
Make no mistake: South Carolinians want to see Google grow and prosper in the region, as evidenced by a succession of tax incentives granted since Google arrived at Mount Holly Commerce Park a decade ago. But we cannot risk the health of one of our most valuable natural resources — the vast Middendorf aquifer that we rely on in part for drinking water.
Hydrogeologists for Google have said the company’s request to withdraw 1.5 million gallons daily (up from its permitted limit of 500,000 gallons daily) wouldn’t put a dent in the underground water system. They say some 200 million gallons of water flow through the ancient aquifer daily. The jury is still out on the topic. The U.S. Geological Survey, which has been studying the area’s aquifers to better understand their resiliency, is expected to release an updated report on the health of the regional system later this year.
But earlier this year the state Department of Health and Environmental Control moved to limit Mount Pleasant’s pumping of groundwater because of a dent, or “cone of depression,” that has developed closer to the coast in the roughly 1,600-foot-deep aquifer. The biggest threat is saltwater intrusion, which has ruined dozens of wells closer to the surface in the Hilton Head area.
So it’s hard to square Google’s latest groundwater request with DHEC limiting withdrawals by Mount Pleasant Waterworks.
Google already buys a considerable but undisclosed amount of cooling water from Berkeley Water and Sanitation. The balance of what is used at the data center is pumped from the ground virtually for free, as would be any additional amount DHEC might allow.
In 2017, Google put its bid to pump 1.5 million gallons daily on hold in the face of widespread public opposition. In light of the pipeline option, DHEC should deny the permit.
The public can comment on Google’s request through June 12 by email sent to email@example.com.
What has been clearly established is that water levels in the Middendorf aquifer have been dropping consistently over the past few decades, more than 20 feet in spots.
Google hasn’t signaled its intentions yet — whether it will drop its permit request or continue to pursue it as the cheapest option for cooling its warehouses full of servers.
No doubt Google CEO Sundar Pichai has plenty on his mind. But he should recognize the tug-of-war over water in Berkeley County as a prime opportunity for the company to demonstrate its goodwill.
Again, Google has options, including building its own pipeline to a surface water source. And, as a corporate entity invested in shaping the future, it should do what is right — even if it’s not the most economical choice.
Google would be well served by embracing the corporate goodwill route on an issue that, in the bigger picture, is just a drop in the bucket for the global juggernaut.