Are data centers culprits in California’s drought?

Google Builds Computing Center In Oregon
THE DALLES, OR - JUNE 15: Google's two new computing centers are seen June 15, 2006 in The Dalles, Oregon. The centers, each the size of a football field, are located in the small Oregon town of 12,000, 80 miles east of Portland. (Photo by Craig Mitchelldyer/Getty Images)
Photograph by Craig Mitchelldyer — Getty Images

To be sure there is no shortage of alleged water wasters contributing to California’s worsening drought situation. They range from almond growers to Rancho Santa Fe one percenters. But California is also home to lots of data centers, and data centers require lots of water too.

As the Wall Street Journal reported, the thirsty data centers powering cloud computing services, are now getting their turn in the hot seat. The state, after all, is home to Google(GOOG), Facebook (FB)and other tech companies with big data center operations there (and elsewhere.) Citing numbers from 451 Research, the Journal says California is home to 800 data centers, more than any other state, and cooling those data centers, especially the older facilities, can take a ton of water. It should be noted however, that a whopping 80% of California’s water goes to agriculture. So it’s perhaps surprising that municipal water restrictions were imposed first and farmers just got their first mandatory cuts about a month ago.

And, to be fair, many data centers now use “gray” or recycled water for cooling. In addition, as new facilities come online, there is more use of outside, ambient air for cooling where possible. That’s one reason a lot of new data center construction is happening in northern climates, Facebook opened its facility in Lulea, Sweden two years ago and is now working on another in Ireland for example.

Data center operators, in their push to be more efficient, have already been cutting waste, although much of that work has focused on energy savings. In the past, the standard recommended temperatures for data center server rooms were way too low, according to Amazon(AMZN)Web Services data center guru James Hamilton. He has long opined that most data centers run too cold for no good reason. To save money on energy just turn up the thermostat, was the message. Presumably, that would also save on water usage—the less air conditioning, the less water use.

But this is a tough problem. Tech companies will continue to be torn by the need to put data centers close to end users—the longer the distance, the more the delay or latency in communications. That may not matter for some applications, but for split-second stock trades or even for streaming media, that can make a difference.

So as the drought continues, expect to see more work from companies like Google, Facebook, Microsoft to minimize water use.

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