Thirsty Tech: Google's Data Surge Guzzles Gazillions of Gallons of Water

The tech giant's proprietary "evaporative cooling" technology keeps the servers cool, but is putting a colossal drain on municipal water systems.

With millions working from home and seeking virtual escape from the pandemic, it's obvious to everyone that internet usage is surging. The amount of fresh water it takes to power your email and hangouts is probably the furthest thing from your mind right now. It's hard to imagine how cloud computing could be linked to natural resources.

But computing requires a cooling solution to keep the data flowing, and Bloomberg recently issued a stunning deep dive on how Google utilizes a trade-secret "evaporative cooling" method in its regional data centers that consumes a princely share of public water.

In some communities, water is far from a boundless resource. The town of Mesa, Arizona (just outside of Phoenix), has struck a deal with Google guaranteeing the company up to 4 million gallons of the wet stuff... a day... for the company's upcoming facility there. Half of Mesa's water is sourced from the drought-prone Colorado River. While in public statements, Google has been vocal about its commitment to making its data centers as environmentally friendly as possible, it has been less than forthcoming about its water usage. After ferreting out some public records, it appears that in 2019 Google has requested more than 2.3 billion gallons of water for data centers in just three states.

Currently, Google operates around 21 data centers and counting across 24 states—some of which will have their own dedicated solar-powered electric grids—and are spending $13B this year on expansion. In Google's 2019 environmental report, the company argued that as energy usage becomes more efficient over time so will its water use. The company says it also relies on recycled water and seawater where it can, to avoid draining drinking water utilities. But these options aren’t always available at every location, and the demand for these services are immediate and unrelenting.

Needless to say, water is a critical natural resource in the United States and elsewhere, and there are warning signs that we're running out of it. As more become aware of the environmental impacts of internet technology, it is increasingly clear that the future of online existence is just as intertwined with the planet as our real-world activities.

Read more on Bloomberg.