Water is scarce in Arizona.Technical data centers also have some responsibility

Sun City, Arizona.
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  • Water is scarce in Arizona.
  • Gov. Katie Hobbs plans to limit construction in and around Phoenix, citing a lack of groundwater.
  • There are several water-intensive data centers in the region. Google has even bigger plans.

I fell in love in Arizona in the early 1990s. When I close my eyes, I can still picture my girlfriend (now wife) wearing a half-top hiking the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix.

Another thing I remember is that it was very hot and dry.

So I was surprised a few years later when I heard that Google was planning a massive data center in Mesa, just east of Phoenix. The contract guarantees Google 1 million gallons of water per day to cool the facility, and up to 4 million gallons per day if project milestones are reached. I did. (That’s a lot of water; Arizona residents use about 146 gallons per day). I was an editor at Bloomberg at the time, so I wrote about it here.

Since then, the Phoenix metropolitan area has become known as a “data center destination” by locals. Microsoft opened in Arizona in 2021. Meta is building and expanding a facility in Mesa.

These huge data centers use incredible amounts of water because the computing gear inside them gets extremely hot when processing all those YouTube videos, Zoom meetings, and mobile app sessions. Water is often used to cool equipment.

Google has started disclosing data on this. In 2021, all of the company’s data centers consumed 4.34 billion gallons of water. That’s a lot, so the company tried to put it all into context by comparing itself to a golf course, a bastion of environmental stewardship. Google noted that 4.34 billion gallons is equivalent to the annual water use of 29 golf courses in the southwestern United States.

Meta also publishes this information. The company’s data centers pumped just over 5 million cubic meters of water in 2021. This equates to approximately 1.33 billion gallons.

This brings us back to Arizona. Water is scarce in the state. The governor announced plans several weeks ago to limit construction in the Phoenix area after it was determined that groundwater could not support the current pace of construction.

There are many reasons for this. But these data centers are contributing to Arizona’s water shortage. And that doesn’t even include Google’s Mesa facility, which is not yet completed. Facebook is also still building a data center in town. So more water will probably be sucked out of the state soon.

The governor’s new restrictions exclude thousands of already approved developments, so Google could probably complete its own facility if it wanted. When I contacted the company about this, I was told that the project is still alive. Google said: “While we have not yet finalized a development schedule for the site, we want to ensure your business has the option to grow further if needed.”

Why would a big tech company build a data center in the middle of the desert? Wouldn’t it be better to have it somewhere cold and wet?

Unfortunately, speed often trumps environment here. It is more important to locate data centers near large populations. The closer you are to the user, the faster your Internet service will respond. Higher speeds mean more usage, more digital ads and cloud services sold, and more revenue.

The Phoenix metropolitan area has 5 million residents and is growing rapidly, and data centers are following suit. Even if you don’t have enough water.

Google, Microsoft, and Meta are working to find more sustainable ways to cool data centers. They also spend real money and effort on water conservation projects. But there’s only so much you can do to combat the reality of Arizona’s hot, dry days.

In 2021, Microsoft announced that its Arizona data center will use “zero water” adiabatic cooling, which uses outside air instead of water. However, this only works if the temperature is below 85F. It will be 113 degrees Fahrenheit in Phoenix this weekend. It’s a little too hot for hiking.

On February 28, Axel Springer, the parent company of Business Insider, joined 31 other media groups in filing a $2.3 billion lawsuit against Google in Dutch court, alleging losses caused by the company’s advertising practices. I woke you up.

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