In August 2019, the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association built a 16-foot pyramid of jugs in its main entrance in Phoenix. The goal was to show residents of this desert region how much water they each use a day—120 gallons—and to encourage conservation.
“We must continue to do our part every day,” executive director Warren Tenney wrote in a blog post. “Some of us are still high-end water users who could look for more ways to use water a bit more wisely.”
A few weeks earlier in nearby Mesa, Google proposed a plan for a giant data center among the cacti and tumbleweeds. The town is a founding member of the Arizona Municipal Water Users Association, but water conservation took a back seat in the deal it struck with the largest U.S. internet company. Google is guaranteed 1 million gallons a day to cool the data center, and up to 4 million gallons a day if it hits project milestones. If that was a pyramid of water jugs, it would tower thousands of feet into Arizona’s cloudless sky.
Alphabet’s Google is building more data centers across the U.S. to power online searches, web advertising and cloud services. The company has boasted for years that these huge computer-filled warehouses are energy efficient and environmentally friendly. But there’s a cost that the company tries to keep secret. These facilities use billions of gallons of water, sometimes in dry areas that are struggling to conserve this limited public resource.
“Data centers are expanding, they’re going everywhere. They need to be built in a way that ensures they are not taking critical resources away from water-scarce communities,” said Gary Cook, global climate campaigns director at Stand.earth, an environmental advocacy group.
Google considers its water use a proprietary trade secret and bars even public officials from disclosing the company’s consumption. But information has leaked out, sometimes through legal battles with local utilities and conservation groups. In 2019 alone, Google requested, or was granted, more than 2.3 billion gallons of water for data centers in three different states, according to public records posted online and legal filings.
Clashes over the company’s water use may increase as it chases Amazon.com Inc. and Microsoft Corp. in the booming cloud-computing market. Google has 21 data center locations currently. After pumping $13 billion into offices and data centers in 2019, it plans to spend another $10 billion across the U.S. this year.
“The race for data centers to keep up with it all is pretty frantic,” said Kevin Kent, chief executive officer of consulting firm Critical Facilities Efficiency Solutions. “They can’t always make the most environmentally best choices.”
Google often puts data centers close to large population hubs to help its web services respond quickly. Sometimes that means building in hot and dry regions. The processing units inside heat up easily and water is needed to cool them down.
“We strive to build sustainability into everything we do,” said Gary Demasi, senior director of energy and location operations at Google. “We’re proud that our data centers are some of the most efficient in the world, and we have worked to reduce their environmental impact even as demand for our products has dramatically risen.”
In Red Oak, Texas, a town about 20 miles south of Dallas, Google wants as much as 1.46 billion gallons of water a year for a new data center by 2021, according to a legal filing. Ellis County, which includes Red Oak and roughly 20 other towns, will need almost 15 billion gallons this year for everything from irrigation to residential use, data from the Texas Water Development Board show.
Many parts of Texas are already seeing high water demand, according to Venki Uddameri, director of the water resources center at Texas Tech University. “With climate change, we are expected to have more prolonged droughts,” he said. “These kinds of water-intensive operations add to the local stress.”
Water-scarce cities have to make trade-offs between conservation and economic development, and cash-rich Google is a big draw. “It’s a constant battle in Texas because of wanting both,” said Uddameri.
In August, Google filed a petition with the Public Utility Commission of Texas to strip a local utility in Red Oak, Rockett Special Utility District, of its federal right to be the sole water supplier to the property. Google said it filed the petition after Rockett confirmed it doesn’t have the capacity to meet the company’s demands. If approved, the petition would let Google get water from another provider.
Rockett contested this in a legal response and said Google provided little information on how the water will be used, both in its application to the utility and in “vague” conversations involving company representatives. Despite that, Google made “incessant” requests for the utility to assess if it can meet the company’s water needs, Rockett said in legal filings. Google paid Rockett to do a report on whether the utility could provide enough water for the project. That report has not been submitted and the internet company has been pressing the utility to complete it, according to Google.