Google can figure out a better way than using well water to cool its Berkeley County data center, and it “should,” according to a draft permit that would allow one of the world’s richest corporations to pump 1.5 million gallons daily from a deep, ancient aquifer over the next five years.
We’d prefer that Google was told more strongly that it “shall” find an alternative. Because Charleston Water System is extending a pipeline into the area, the data center would be able to satisfy its thirst with public supplies via CWS or Berkeley Water and Sanitation.
But DHEC officials said their regulatory framework didn’t allow them to consider the new pipeline, only what was in Google’s permit application. That’s something that should change, especially in such a fluid situation.
It’s worth noting that Google only started pumping groundwater in 2018 under an existing permit that allows for 500,000 gallons daily. But Google also should have planned for its water needs a decade ago when it arrived in Berkeley County.
Google probably won’t damage the Middendorf aquifer that also serves other Lowcountry industries. But it is indirectly putting a pinch on Mount Pleasant Waterworks’ ability to supply its customers. And that’s a slightly different, though closely related, issue.
At the same time the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental issued its draft permit for Google, it issued a draft permit that would hold MPW to a new, lower allowance of groundwater.
The new limit would be about what MPW has been pumping in recent years, but 57% less than its current permit allows. That’s because of a long-standing “cone of depression” in the aquifer in the Charleston/Mount Pleasant area that extends 5-30 miles around MPW wells, but not as far as Google’s wells.
Though the water levels have rebounded in recent years, thanks to MPW reducing its take, there’s a long-term danger of drawing water levels down to a tipping point where the aquifer could be ruined by saltwater intrusion. And DHEC hydrologists don’t know where that point is, only that it is farther away than decades past when the cone of depression was much deeper.
“We consider this a water crisis,” MPW general manager Clay Duffie said, adding that the “unfair restrictions” DHEC is proposing interfere with his long-term planning and will likely cause MPW to make additional “unnecessary” purchases from CWS.
So expect some pushback from MPW. Ideally, we’d like see DHEC mandate that Google eliminate its use of groundwater, except as an emergency backup, within five years when the proposed permit would come up for renewal.
And while Google has given away Chromebooks to Berkeley County students and provided free WiFi for Cypress Gardens, among other things, the company might get a bigger bang for its public relations bucks by laying off our groundwater supplies. We don’t know exactly who at Google makes such decisions, but we think it’s one that should perk all the way up to CEO Sundar Pichai.
DHEC laid out to The Post and Courier its scientific basis for its reasoning, and it is sound insomuch as it protects the aquifer. But we believe the agency should be able to consider the new CWS pipeline as part of the permitting process, and that it should require Google to phase out its groundwater use over the next five years.
For new development, MPW already relies on water purchases from CWS. So Mount Pleasant residents shouldn’t be surprised if their rates rise or if the utility begins new conservation efforts.
Ideally, Google would adhere to the spirit of DHEC’s draft permit and stick to public water supplies and stay out of groundwater. Water is an increasingly precious resource in rapidly growing South Carolina, and everyone must do their part now to ensure it is protected.