Big Tech Water Usage

01/01/2022
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    This Google data center is located in The Dalles, Oregon. As demand for cloud computing grows, tech companies are building more data centers. Those use vast amounts of water. (AP/Andrew Selsky)
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    Google wants to build more data centers on this land in The Dalles, Oregon. (AP/Andrew Selsky)
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    Dawn Rasmussen stands at her well on her property near The Dalles, Oregon. She says the water table that her well draws from has dropped 15 feet in the last 15 years. (AP/Andrew Selsky)
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    Workers clean off a Microsoft data center after retrieving it from the water. The seawater kept it cool without using fresh water. (Microsoft)
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    Facebook’s data center in Luleå, Sweden, is near the Arctic Circle. That helps keep its servers cool. (Facebook)
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Big technology is battling on a new front. It’s not censors, electricity, or pollution in this case. It’s water use. And some folks worry there’s not enough of the wet stuff to go around.

Water is a precious, God-given resource. Human life requires it. Jesus used a water metaphor when He said, “Whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:14) That water is never in short supply.

On Earth, water is a concern. Across the United States, tech companies are building and expanding. Their data centers help people stream movies, transfer money, post to TikTok, and store trillions of photos. They’re also a critical part of modern cloud-based computing.

Here’s the problem: Keeping all that high temperature-generating equipment cool often requires water. A single hub can churn through millions of gallons of water daily just to keep the machines from overheating.

As population booms, pollution, and droughts continue, big tech conflicts over water are likely to grow.

Some data centers are trying to become more efficient in water use. For example, a Google facility in Georgia uses treated sewage water, instead of drinking water, to cool computers. A Facebook data center uses the cold temps in Prineville, Oregon, to chill its servers and built another near the Arctic Circle. Microsoft placed a data center on the seafloor to avoid consuming fresh water.

Folks in The Dalles, Oregon, worry about Google’s plans to build more huge data centers there. The Dalles is currently suffering extreme drought. Some residents fear the area’s water stores will run dry. If that happens, farms and orchards would suffer.

New data centers in The Dalles would take water from small nearby rivers and from groundwater. Both of those rely on melting snowpack from the nearby Cascade Range. Winter snow usually feeds groundwater supplies. But it isn’t reliable, and some of it is diminishing.

Google is proposing a program to store water and increase supply during drier periods.

For some, that promise seems hollow. Dawn Rasmussen lives on the outskirts of The Dalles. She thinks her town shouldn’t negotiate with Google. She likens the situation to David versus Goliath.

She sees her well-water level dropping year after year and worries that sooner or later there won’t be enough water for everyone. “At the end of the day,” Rasmussen asks, “if there’s not enough water, who’s going to win?”

Why? As dependency upon technology grows, more of our God-given resources may be diverted from human provision to managing tech. It’s wise to know, so that we can prioritize well and keep God’s values in mind for resource use.