Google Groundwater Permit
Google first applied to triple its allotted groundwater withdrawal from 183 to 549 million gallons (MG) per year in 2016 in order to cool servers at its data center in Berkeley County. The request was met with swift and strong opposition from the public and the conservation community. As a result, the tech company withdrew its request and promised to go back to the drawing board to explore alternatives that would not require such significant use of a limited natural resource like the Middendorf Aquifer. Local communities like Mount Pleasant, Sullivan’s Island and Isle of Palms also pull groundwater from the 83-million-year-old aquifer to supply drinking water and support emergency fire and rescue services.
Google currently buys surface drinking water from local utility Berkeley County Water & Sanitation to use as its primary source for cooling its servers. However, the tech company has refused to reveal how much of this water it uses. The Conservation League and the community think that information is important in understanding whether Google’s request to triple its groundwater withdrawal is reasonable. Further, the company never used any of its original allotted groundwater (183 MG per year) until late 2018, soon before it asked to triple that amount.
Still, Google has said what the company currently pulls won’t meet the needs of the data center after its proposed expansion. Therefore, in February 2019, the company once again requested to withdraw 549 MG year of groundwater from the aquifer.
On August 22, DHEC approved that request, issuing Google a draft permit that will allow the company to pull 549 million gallons every year. On September 30, the Technical Advisory Committee of the Berkeley-Charleston-Dorchester Council of Governments voted to recommend that DHEC deny Google’s permit. However, on October 9, DHEC approved a final version of the permit with no meaningful conditions.
Mount Pleasant Waterworks
At the same time DHEC is giving Google a green light to triple its groundwater use, the agency is proposing to force Mount Pleasant Waterworks, a public utility, to cut its groundwater use by 57 percent. That permit is awaiting final approval.
Here’s why the Conservation League is deeply concerned:
Lack of transparency
Google is already using Berkeley County surface water, another public resource, without sharing how much or how often. The company has claimed this information is a trade secret. On multiple occasions, the Southern Environmental Law Center, on behalf of our organization, has requested the data to better understand how reasonable Google’s groundwater request is. While we understand the need to protect some important information, we strongly value protecting water resources and being able to make fully informed decisions about how to manage the state’s surface and groundwater resources.
After signing an agreement with Charleston Water System, Berkeley County is now building necessary infrastructure to bring an additional 5 million gallons of water each day to its system. Berkeley County, by their own assurances, has obtained all environmental permits and property easements for the project and has begun installing the underground line. We know that some or all of that water is meant for Google and will likely be available between April and July 2020. That amount of surplus surface water would satisfy Google’s need without upping its permitted groundwater withdrawal.