A new front in the water wars: Your internet use
When Jenn Duff heard that Meta , the parent company of Facebook, wanted to build yet another data center in Mesa, Ariz., she was immediately suspicious. My first reaction was concern for our water, Duff said. The desert city of half a million residents was already home to large data centers owned by Google, Apple and other tech giants, and Duff, a city council member, feared for the citys future water supply. Its not like were sitting fat and happy in water, she said. Were still constantly looking at the drought situation. Mesa is only one of many cities and towns in the West wrestling with the expansion of water-guzzling data centers. For years, data centers have come under scrutiny for their carbon emissions. But now, as a megadrought continues to ravage the Southwest and the Colorado River dwindles , some communities charge that the centers are also draining local water supplies. In The Dalles, Ore., a local paper fought to unearth information revealing that a Google data center uses over a quarter of the citys water. In Los Lunas, N.M., farmers protested a decision by the city to allow a Meta data center to move into the area. In a small Dutch town, a fight with Meta over a massive data center More than 30 percent of the worlds data centers are located in the United States; the power required to run those centers already accounts for about 2 percent of the nations electricity use . As the data storage requirements of the planet escalate and as water becomes scarcer because of climate change these operations may attract greater scrutiny. Its common to think of the stuff of digital life the photos, the videos, the webpages, the e-books, the reams and reams of data as somehow lighter than air, existing in the cloud or zipping along global wireless networks. The reality, however, is much more concrete. The dozens of zettabytes of data produced every year (a zettabyte is a gigantic unit of data, equal to about 250 billion DVDs ) are increasingly stored in thousands of data centers around the world, where massive servers keep the internet afloat. Those servers require a great deal of energy and produce a great deal of heat. Without adequate cooling, the servers can overheat, fail or even catch fire. Companies can either use traditional air conditioning to cool the servers, which is expensive, or use water for evaporative cooling. The latter is cheaper, but it also sucks up millions of gallons of water. A large data center, researchers say, can gobble up anywhere between 1 million and 5 million gallons of water a day as much as a town of 10,000 to 50,000 people. According to a Virginia Tech study , data centers rank among the top 10 water-consuming commercial industries in the United States, using approximately 513 million cubic meters of water in 2018. Much of that water use comes from electricity use coal, nuclear and natural gas plants take water to operate, and hydropower also consumes water but about a quarter is due to using water for direct cooling. The researchers also found that a lot of data centers operate where water is scarce. Part of the problem is that tech companies put many of these centers in areas where power is cheap and low-carbon such as Arizona or other states with plentiful solar or wind power to help meet their own climate targets. Water in those regions is scarce. Meanwhile, areas where water is plentiful, such as in the East, have higher-carbon sources of power. You have to think about how much of the western United States is water-stressed, said Landon Marston, a professor of water resources engineering at Virginia Tech and one of the studys authors. California, for example, has at least 239 data centers; desert Arizona has at least 49. Ben Townsend, Googles global head of infrastructure and water strategy, said there is a trade-off between using more water for cooling, thus saving precious drops, and using more energy for cooling through traditional air conditioning, which emits more greenhouse gases. The right combination depends on where the center is located. Compared with agriculture and urban demands, data centers take up a small proportion of the Wests water. But in small towns and rural areas, the proportion can seem much larger, and spark conflict. In The Dalles, Google was embroiled in a 13-month legal fight to keep the water usage of its local data centers private. Eventually, the company disclosed that its data centers now consume more than 25 percent of the towns supply. Google then became the first company to publicize its data centers water usage worldwide . John DeVoe, adviser for the environmental group WaterWatch of Oregon, worries that data centers in The Dalles are taking away precious water that could be used to help support species in nearby wetlands and rivers. Its an already difficult situation where too much water is promised to too many interests, DeVoe said. And now you have a new use coming in and saying, Hey, we want our share too. In nearby Cascade Locks, Ore., residents are also pushing back against a proposed data center that they worry will raise electricity rates and suck up precious water. The good news is that data centers efficiency has improved dramatically over the past decade or so. In the mid-2000s, Marston said, researchers projected that data center electricity use would expand to take up huge proportions of the worlds electricity demand. But while data centers workloads increased fivefold between 2010 and 2018, their electricity consumption only increased 6 percent. Still, as the world lives more and more online, data storage requirements are climbing. Newsha Ajami, a researcher at Stanford Universitys Water in the West center and water expert at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said even if data centers water use is relatively small, the regions long-term megadrought means every use is up for debate. We have really limited amounts of water, she said. Every drop counts. Understanding our climate: Global warming is a real phenomenon , and weather disasters are undeniably linked to it . As temperatures rise, heat waves are more often sweeping the globe and parts of the world are becoming too hot to survive . What can be done? The Post is tracking a variety of climate solutions , as well as the Biden administrations actions on environmental issues . It can feel overwhelming facing the impacts of climate change, but there are ways to cope with climate anxiety . Inventive solutions: Some people have built off-the-grid homes from trash to stand up to a changing climate. As seas rise, others are exploring how to harness marine energy . What about your role in climate change? Our climate coach Michael J. Coren is answering questions about environmental choices in our everyday lives. Submit yours here. You can also sign up for our Climate Coach newsletter .