Water Restrictions in Southwest May Raise the Bar for Data Center Operators

Aug. 19, 2022
Warning of a potential “catastrophic collapse” of the water supply in the Southwest, the U.S Interior Department is placing restrictions on Arizona’s water use from the Colorado Basin. The impact may be felt by the data center sector, whose water use is already under scrutiny in Phoenix,

Warning of a potential “catastrophic collapse” of the water supply in the Southwest, the U.S Interior Department is placing restrictions on water use from Lake Mead. Federal officials have declared a Tier 2a shortage for the Lower Colorado River Basin, requiring cuts in water use that will reduce Arizona gets by 21 percent, and Nevada by 8 percent.

The cuts have the largest implications for farmers, who use 74 percent of the water from the Colorado Basin. But the impact may also be felt by the data center sector, whose water use is already under intense scrutiny in Phoenix, which has emerged as a key growth market for cloud computing infrastructure.

The reductions were expected, but represent a new phase in the water crisis in the drought-stricken southwest, which has drained Lake Mead and Lake Powell to historic lows. The reductions are designed to prevent reservoirs from falling to critically low levels that would threaten water deliveries and power production.

“In order to avoid a catastrophic collapse of the Colorado River System and a future of uncertainty and conflict, water use in the Basin must be reduced,” said Assistant Secretary for Water and Science Tanya Trujillo. ““Every sector in every state has a responsibility to ensure that water is used with maximum efficiency.”

The heightened awareness of water constraints has focused attention on water use by data centers in Phoenix, which has seen a flurry of large new projects in Mesa and Goodyear. Last year a dispute over water use at a Facebook project in Mesa prompted national media coverage of cloud computing’s potential water use in regions facing severe drought. The attention has highlighted the enormous water used by some data center cooling technologies, as well as the efforts by some leading cloud builders to address worries that their facilities may compete with local residents for access to water.

Those concerns will be heightened in the wake of the latest restrictions on water use in Arizona. Sensitivity to water conservation will need to be front and center for data center operators with new projects in the area.

Water is a Growing Priority for Data Centers

Water is not a new concern, but as the data center industry has confronted its environmental responsibilities, water has too often been a secondary concern compared to electricity, a function of power’s more direct impact on carbon footprint.

Climate is a factor in determining the operating cost for a facility, including which cooling technologies will work best, and whether multiple approaches are needed to balance possible weather variations. A number of facilities in the Phoenix market already use cooling technologies with minimal use of water, including Aligned, CyrusOne, Compass Datacenters and Vantage Data Centers, among others. Hyperscale operators in Greater Phoenix have also taken steps to reduce their impact through both on-site technology and investment in water conservation and replenishment efforts in local communities.

Recent headlines have raised questions about whether data center operators are living up to their public statements about the impact of their facilities on the environment. Last year Microsoft pledged to reduce the water usage of its data centers by 95 percent over three years.  But media in Holland this week reported that a local Microsoft data center appears to have used about four times the amount of water the company predicted.

Phoenix A Hot Market for Data Center Growth

Over the past year, the Greater Phoenix data center market has been one of the most active globally for hyperscale demand and development. Data center operators that anticipated this growth and chose to develop campuses in the region are capitalizing on hyperscale activity in the market.

This year we expect to see continued growth in Phoenix, as power availability and real estate challenges in California push large data center users further east.

The Phoenix market is home to 2.6 million square feet (SF) of commissioned data center space, representing 458 megawatts (MW) of commissioned power at the end of the first quarter of 2022, according to market research from datacenterHawk. These metrics place Phoenix as a top five market for data center capacity in the U.S., joining Northern Virginia, Silicon Valley, Dallas and Chicago.

Irrigation for agriculture is the largest user of water in Arizona, consuming about 74 percent of the available water supply, compared to about 15 percent for commercial and industrial uses, including data centers.

The new restrictions are triggered by existing agreements between the seven states that rely on water from the Colorado Basin. The states were unable to agree on a new plan to meet water conservation goals the federal government set in June, which called for even greater reductions.

Deputy Interior Secretary Tommy Beaudreau on Tuesday told reporters there was “still time” to find consensus for more aggressive conservation, and officials at the Bureau of Reclamation did not say when they might impose their own cuts if no deal is reached.

The state-level negotiations have been complicated by tensions over how the burden of conservation should be distributed. Arizona officials say they are looking to other states to play a larger role.

“Arizona has already reduced its consumption of Colorado River water at a pace and scale not seen in other states,” Sen. Mark Kelly wrote to Interior officials. “In 2022 alone, Arizona farmers, cities, and tribes have pledged resources to conserve over 800,000-acre-feet of water—an amount equal to nearly one-third of our state’s full allocation. Other states with significant water allocations have so far offered insufficient or uncertain amounts of water.”

Here’s a resource guide on data centers, conservation and water scarcity.

Data Centers and Water: The Big Picture

Here are the 10 most popular stories on Data Center Frontier in July 2022, in order of article views:

Water Management Insights From the Industry

  • Making Your Data Center Water Positive: Cem Candir, CEO of Chemstar WATER, provides insights on new innovations in data center water treatment and gives details on how some hyperscalers are making their data centers water positive.
  • Tackling Data Center Water Usage Challenges Amid Historic Droughts, Wildfires: Data center water use has broad impacts. It affects the quality and availability of local water supplies, particularly when groundwater is involved. This special report series examines data center water usage amid historic droughts and wildfires in California and beyond.
  • Water Scarcity: How Data Centers Can Help: Water scarcity is a looming global crisis. Kris Holla, Group Vice President, Channel Sales, Nortek Air Solutions, and Michael Lesniak, AVP Global Corporate Accounts, Global Data Center Solutions at Nalco Water, discuss how data centers can conserve the planet’s diminishing fresh water supply and practice water stewardship.
  • Water is Essential to the Digital Economy: Water is a resource we must acknowledge as finite, and we must safeguard it accordingly. Stream Data Center’s Chris Bair and Yvonne Deir share their perspectives on data center water use and how to optimize water consumption.

Water Conservation Initiatives from Data Center Companies

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About the Author

Rich Miller

I write about the places where the Internet lives, telling the story of data centers and the people who build them. I founded Data Center Knowledge, the data center industry's leading news site. Now I'm exploring the future of cloud computing at Data Center Frontier.

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