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10 Sep, 2021 19:42

Google promises better ‘water stewardship’ as its data centers’ guzzle crucial supplies amid historic droughts

Google promises better ‘water stewardship’ as its data centers’ guzzle crucial supplies amid historic droughts

Google is wrestling for control of rapidly-dwindling water supplies with communities that host its massive data centers as record droughts plague the West coast. Now the tech behemoth has outlined plans to become “water positive.”

The giant company has clashed with farms, conservation groups, and even some local politicians as mammoth droughts leave no water to spare and mandatory cuts loom in 2022. 

Google’s solution, as laid out in a Thursday blog post by chief sustainability officer Kate Brandt, is to become ultra-sustainable, replenishing 120% of the water it consumes – by 2030. In the meantime, locals will just have to suck it up, assuming they can find anything to suck up, that is.

Google has explained that using water to cool its servers uses less electricity than attempting to air-condition them, but such calculations don’t take into account the ways in which communities might prefer to use their water. This is especially true in 2021, a year of unusually prolific natural disasters in which droughts, floods, hurricanes, and tornadoes have all menaced the nation’s food supply – which is itself already imperiled by the economic disruption wrought by ill-thought-out Covid-19 shutdowns.

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Brandt acknowledged in her blog post that the West Coast, which hosts three of the company’s data centers, is facing “one of the worst droughts in recorded history,” but seemed reluctant to own Google’s role, even as the company’s annual water consumption has more than doubled between 2016 and 2019. Swelling from an already-prodigious 2.5 billion gallons to a whopping five billion, the company’s thirst is leaving its neighbors in the dust, literally.

Instead, Brandt blamed climate change alone for threatening the “delicate ecosystems” in the middle of which Google has been plopping its resource-hogging data centers for years. She said that, in order to become super-sustainable, Google plans to “invest in community projects” even as those same communities fear for their future. 

Not only were the worsening water shortages nothing to do with Google, the megacorporation was poised to come to humanity’s rescue by “enhancing stewardship of water resources” and “improving watershed health and ecosystems in water-stressed communities.

And last – but certainly not least – Google’s crusading environmentalists will deploy AI upon some of its data hoard to “predict and prevent” stress on water systems – a tactic that might cynically be described as repeating the behavior that helped cause the problem (manic data hoarding) in the hope of solving it.

Thanks to the historic drought conditions on the West Coast, mandatory cuts to Arizona and Nevada’s water supply are coming in 2022, following the first-ever federal declaration of an official water shortage at Lake Mead.

Yet even while farmers in Arizona could see their water supply reduced by as much as 65%, local governments have been rolling out the red carpet for companies like Google to build their sprawling data centers on cheap desert land.

Worth over a trillion dollars, Google is much more powerful than any local government and, while it tries to avoid excessive muscle-flexing in public – that way lies antitrust lawsuits – local farmers don’t stand a chance in battle against Google’s Goliath.

While critics charge these data center projects contribute relatively few jobs compared to the amount of resources they suck up, tech companies are masters at wooing regulators with green patter — always dependent on sustainability goals to be delivered years into the future, after those making the promises have had a chance to cash in their stock options and retire.

Google water-sucking efforts haven’t been limited to the West Coast, either. The company faced pushback in 2017 when it asked for an extra 1.5 million daily gallons for a data center in South Carolina that already inhaled 4 million gallons of water on a daily basis.

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Such growing opposition forced the company to get creative, cooling a Georgia server farm with “reclaimed wastewater” while touting its use of collected rainwater to meet office needs as somehow equivalent to the millions of gallons required to meet data center needs.

And while some areas are trying to put the brakes on tech companies’ rapacious expansion into their scarce water resources using so-called “water credits,” an Arizona State University found that the credits were over-allocated —  a run on the water “bank” would leave it overdrawn. Given that less than a third of data center operators actually keep track of how much water they consume, it’s easy to see such a system metastasizing out of control.

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