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Google and other tech companies are building more data centers to facilitate the millions of searches performed around the world every minute. In many places, they're welcome for the jobs and the tax revenue they bring. But in one community near Charleston, S.C., there's also concern about Google's impact on the local water supply. NPR's Sarah McCammon has more.
SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: Clay Duffie remembers a time when the water in his area was soft. You'd come out of the shower and still feel dirty and salty.
CLAY DUFFIE: It'd kill your azaleas if you irrigated with it. Your grits would come out in a big clump instead of creamy like they should.
MCCAMMON: And he says the sweet tea was cloudy. Duffie cares a lot about this. He's the head of Mount Pleasant Waterworks, which provides water for more than 80,000 people outside Charleston. His concern now is Google's request for permission from South Carolina regulators to pump water from underground.
DUFFIE: We've invested a lot in making sure that the ground water quality that we treat and send to the customers are high quality. We also want to protect the quantity side of that.
MCCAMMON: Google already has the right to pump up to half a million gallons a day at no charge. Now, the company is asking to triple that to one and a half million. That's close to half of the groundwater that Mount Pleasant Waterworks pumps from the same aquifer.
PATRICK LINEHAN: They run really hot. It takes a lot of energy to run a data center. So we use water to cool them down.
MCCAMMON: It's the servers that generate all that heat, says Google spokesman Patrick Linehan. He says Google is taking steps to conserve water and energy while preparing for the needs of the future.
LINEHAN: The Internet is constantly expanding and data centers allow the Internet to continue to do that. And we're very long-term thinkers in terms of capacity, so we're always preparing for more growth.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: In 600 feet, turn right onto U.S. 50 East.
MCCAMMON: So I have basically driven out to where I am told this data center is. And there isn't much to see here. I see a sign that says Google. And there's a guard shack and a fence, and that's about it.
Google wouldn't let me inside of its South Carolina data center, which opened up nearly a decade ago in Berkeley County. But it's in a suburban area surrounded by woods and office buildings. Emily Cedzo of the Coastal Conservation League says she worries about its impact on the underground aquifer that the community relies on.
EMILY CEDZO: It's great to have Google in this region. Folks are proud to say that Google calls Charleston home. So by no means are we going after Google. Our concern, primarily, is the source of that water.
MCCAMMON: Google, with its six data centers nationwide, is just one of several major tech companies operating centers in relatively dry parts of the country, like eBay in Salt Lake City and Microsoft in San Antonio. Alfonso Ortega is a professor of energy technology at Villanova University. Speaking via Skype, he says the tech industry as a whole has been a leader in adopting environmentally sustainable practices like reusing water. But there are tradeoffs.
ALFONSO ORTEGA: The consumption of their water competes with every other need for that water. And one would hope that community leaders would be able to balance the benefits of having that data center in the community compared to the water that they're going to consume.
MCCAMMON: In places with enough water to go around, he says the jobs and tax revenues brought by data companies might just be worth the water and other resources required to run them. Sarah McCammon, NPR News, Mount Pleasant, S.C.
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