Server Farm requires water

By: James Higgins

Guest Editorial Graphic Schilling Show BlogIn September of 2023, elected officials in Louisa County in Central Virginia were giddy with the decision by Amazon Web Services (AWS) to spend $11 billion (by 2040) to build two server farms in the County. Louisa district supervisor Fitzgerald Barnes exulted, “It’s great for our local economy, great for our tax base.” County Administrator Christian Goodwin crowed, “This is a historic moment for the county. AWS’s plans to locate in Louisa represent an amazing opportunity that benefits our citizens and our community as a whole.” [1] [2] [3]

Louisa officials touted the benefits the data center would bestow on their County, such as ‘core service enhancements’, including public safety and education; and infrastructure improvements, such as parks and facilities upgrades.[4]

The advent of Louisa County as a destination for server farms was tied to an initiative by the administration of Governor Glen Youngkin to maintain the state’s reputation as having the greatest number of data centers in the nation. The Louisa AWS Center will be the latest component of Amazon’s $35 billion investment in server farms in Virginia.[5]

As an indication of the allure data centers have for various enterprises, some developers are looking to capitalize on the profitability of these installations by repurposing properties, originally intended for residential housing subdivisions, into server farms. For example, Stanley Martin Homes, a well-known Virginia-based developer, is seeking to construct the ‘Devlin Technology Park’, a 4.2-million-square-foot data center, on 269 acres in Bristow, Prince William County. Stanley Martin Homes originally intended the acreage for 551 single-family homes.[6] 

While advocates for data centers tout myriad benefits that will accrue to those communities where these centers are located, over the past decade in northern Virginia, opposition to data centers has been growing. Opponents cite air pollution, increased demand on local electric grids, and increased stormwater runoff, as among the deleterious consequences associated with the placement of data centers.[7] [8]

Opposition to data centers is being manifested in recent political contests. In a Democratic primary held in Prince William County in June 2023, Ann Wheeler, the Chair of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and a staunch proponent of expanding data center construction in the County, was defeated by newcomer Deshundra Jefferson, who campaigned on curtailing data centers. Jefferson, and other data center opponents in the Northern Virginia area, were elected to office in the November 2023 elections in Prince William and Fauquier Counties.[9] [10] [11] [12] [13]

While air and noise pollution, and stress to the power grid, are negative consequences associated with the operation of data centers, there is one aspect of these installations that has proven to be even more controversial; namely, their need for water. Lots of water: depending on the size of the installation, anywhere from 1 to more than 5 million gallons per day.[14] [15]

Why the need for water ? Because, as computers become more powerful (especially in regard to performing ‘cloud’ computing and Artificial Intelligence -centric taskings), they generate greater amounts of heat. Unless that heat is dissipated, the computers will not run, and even become permanently damaged. Due to forthcoming advances in processor power, the need to reduce heat will remain a critical aspect of server farm operation well into the future.[16] [17] [18]

Many municipalities that eagerly have welcomed data centers as a source of jobs and property tax revenue have discovered, to their dismay, that these installations make major demands on water resources:

  • In July of 2022, Microsoft used 11 million gallons of water to cool its cluster of supercomputing centers in West Des Moines. According to the West Des Moines Water Works, that was 6% of all water used in the district. Data center advocates are promoting the formation of a ‘regional water utility’, that would require municipalities to share the costs of developing new water acquisition and distribution systems in the wider Des Moines area.[19] [20] [21] [22]
  • In The Dalles, Oregon, the city council refused to publicly disclose the amount of water used by a Google data center complex, even as it negotiated with the company to expand water delivery to new centers. Only after the Oregonian newspaper filed a lawsuit on the grounds of the state’s open records law did the city admit that approximately one-quarter of its water supplied the data centers. In 2021, the Google installations used 274.5 million gallons of water.[23] [24] [25] [26]
  • In Berkeley County, South Carolina, a Google data center required 4 million gallons a day of surface water. In 2017, Google requested the ability to draw an additional 1.5 million gallons a day from the aquifer that supplied drinking water to over 80,000 area residents. After protests by citizens and environmental groups, Google consented to an agreement that lets it draw on the aquifer only in instances when it cannot access sufficient surface water.[27] [28]

To give context to these water usages, I note that in Greene County, where I live, the daily output of the water treatment plant on Route 29 produces a maximum of 1.15 million gallons per day. The proposed White Run Reservoir, which is projected to cost $75 to $100 million and be completed sometime in early 2028, will meet a ‘daily demand’ of 3.5 million gallons per day. In the greater Charlottesville and Albemarle County area, the five water treatment plants operated by the Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority provide a combined nominal capacity of 19 million gallons per day. [29] [30] [31] [32]

It is apparent from these metrics that Greene County presently is incapable of hosting data centers that rely on water for cooling, and that even construction of the White Run Reservoir only will allow for moderately-sized data center operation. For its part, Albemarle County could host one or two of the larger centers, however, increasing these numbers will require investment in additional water resources.

Presumably, counties interested in hosting data centers carefully deliberate over their ability to provide sufficient water for these installations. However, an examination of the process by which Louisa County elected and appointed officials recruited and approved of the AWS installation, indicates a willingness to bypass the traditional zoning process.

At the County’s website, a listing of 30 Frequently Asked Questions (F.A.Q.) about the data center reveals that ‘preliminary discussions’ between Amazon and County representatives took place in 2022. Early in 2023, County officials inaugurated the ‘Technology Overlay District’ zoning classification in order to expedite approval of the AWS campus. According to the County, TOD zoning provides ‘…the most restrictive development standards in the County’, and allowed Louisa ‘…to implement development controls that addressed public concerns while preserving the ability to compete quickly and effectively with other localities in the state.’ [33] [34]

The carefully calibrated wording of this statement suggests that Louisa’s elected officials were fearful of losing out as an AWS host to another locality, and were comfortable with relaxing the zoning process in order to land the Amazon installation.

Whether Louisa’s tactics for accommodating an AWS installation are justifiable is open to argument. I do note that the water requirements of the proposed center are formidable in scope. It raises questions as to whether Louisa officials, in their haste to land the center, might not have underestimated the challenges posed by this aspect of their dealmaking. According to Andy Wade of the County’s Economic Development Director, there will be 11 data centers, apportioned between two campuses. The North Creek Technology Campus will be located on 1,400 acres in proximity to the Northeast Creek Reservoir, with a smaller campus, known as the Lake Anna Technology Campus, of 150 acres located near the North Anna Nuclear Power Station. According to Wade, both campuses would rely on the Reservoir for water, and would use both raw and potable waters. The Lake Anna Campus is scheduled to be operational in later 2024 or 2025.[35]

Forecasts of the water draw by the AWS campus show some variability. For example, in September 2023, Wade claimed that the two campuses will use 620,000 gallons of water per day, and the Northeast Creek Reservoir has a ‘safe’ capacity of 2.77 million gallons per day. But in November, Wade revised the daily water use to 630,000 gallons per day, and the Reservoir’s safe yield to 3.2 million gallons per day. According to attorney Matt Roberts, the campuses could draw as much as 7.2 million gallons per day, with Wade claiming that this would only pertain to a ‘handful’ of days during hotter weather.[36] [37]

How accurate are these projections ? Prior to the rainy weather of early December, 2023, Louisa County’s status at the U.S Drought Monitor website was ‘D1’ (moderate drought).[38]

I acknowledge that the drought could end at any time, and it is probable that by 2025, when the initial stage of the AWS center is expected to be completed, the drought may be nothing more than a historical observation. However, given that 2022 saw unprecedented drought conditions in the U.S., and that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts that drought conditions will persist across much of the country in the near future, it is fair to ask whether Louisa elected officials have factored the impact of environmental phenomena, such as drought, on the ability of the Northeast Creek Reservoir to furnish sufficient water for the center, as well as additional growth in the County.[39]

For example, over the past 10 years, the Louisa County Board of Supervisors have approved massive housing and commercial developments in the Zion Crossroads area, which currently relies on well water. [40] [41]

Some, or all, of the projected developments at the Crossroads likely will depend on access to the ‘James River Water Project’, a collaborative engineering project with Fluvanna County to retrieve water from the James River. As of early 2023, the Project’s cost was estimated at $35 million, to be split equally between the two counties. The Project is expected to be completed in 2026. If the Project can meet that completion date, it may be in a position to help Louisa County provide water for the AWS center. Whether the Project can accommodate both the needs of development in the Zion Crossroads area and the AWS campuses is, in my opinion, uncertain.[42] [43]

As 2023 comes to a close, issues associated with the construction of data centers in Central Virginia only are going to increase in importance, because Louisa County no longer is the only involved polity.

As November comes to a close, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by an environmental advocacy group revealed that Orange County politicians had made a confidential agreement with Amazon for the construction of a data center campus on the rezoned 2,500 acres of the mixed-use ‘Wilderness Crossing’ development.

The Piedmont Environmental Council, which filed the FOIA, pointed out that Wilderness Crossing will be constructed on the site of the former Vaucluse gold mine, on terrain that likely is contaminated with heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury. The source of water for the Amazon data center has yet to be disclosed, but there are concerns that local waters are compromised by mine contaminants.[44] [45] [46] [47]

In closing, it is clear that data centers no longer are an enterprise unique to northern Virginia, and they will be expanding into other regions of the state. As residents of Central Virginia contemplate the arrival of these installations in Louisa and (perhaps) Orange counties, and ponder the likelihood of data centers in their locations, it will be important for them to consider the following questions:

  • are the politicians, planning commission members, and economic development analysts seeking to host data centers, open and forthright about their municipality’s ability to furnish adequate water and electricity, not only for the data centers, but for concomitant projected residential growth ?
  • when politicians and utility company heads talk about the need for ‘regional’ organizations to better manage the distribution of water and power resources among counties and municipalities, who will be the actual beneficiaries of these proposals ?
  • are localities being transparent about the zoning processes used to accommodate data center construction ?

Asking, and receiving, answers to these questions will be vital to communities weighing the merits, and demerits, of hosting these installations.


[1] Harris, Destini, “Amazon to Build Data Centers in Louisa County,” NBC 29 News, September 11, 2023, https://www.nbc29.com/2023/09/11/amazon-build-data-centers-louisa-county/.

[2] Vincent, Matt, “AWS Plans $11B Investment For 2 Data Center Campuses in Louisa County, VA by 2040,” Data Center Frontier, August 30, 2023, https://www.datacenterfrontier.com/hyperscale/article/33010712/aws-plans-11b-investment-for-2-data-center-campuses-in-louisa-county-va-by-2040.

[3] for simplicity’s sake I use the terms ‘data center’ and ‘server farm’ interchangeably. Technically, a server farm – in other words, racks of computers – is a component of a data center

[4] Vincent, Matt, “AWS Plans $11B Investment For 2 Data Center Campuses in Louisa County, VA by 2040”

[5] Pipkin, Whitney, “Data Centers May Be Nearing Tipping Point in Northern Virginia,” Bay Journal, June 6, 2023, https://www.bayjournal.com/news/growth_conservation/data-centers-may-be-nearing-tipping-point-in-northern-virginia/article_16c6281e-fff2-11ed-987c-07e765e5f710.html.

[6] Peters, Ben, “After Bitter Election, Chair Candidates Unite to Oppose Devlin Technology Park Data Center in Bristow,” Inside NoVa.com, November 15, 2023, https://www.insidenova.com/news/politics/after-bitter-election-chair-candidates-unite-to-oppose-devlin-technology-park-data-center-in-bristow/article_b9369544-83db-11ee-8312-bb58bcf53657.html.

[7] Pipken, Whitney, “Data Centers May Be Nearing Tipping Point in Northern Virginia”

[8] Cary, Peter, “Data Centers Drive Search for New Power Corridors,” Fauquier Times, Prince William Times.com, August 16, 2023, https://www.fauquier.com/news/article_8bb7e260-3c43-11ee-be50-77e0db10a05c.html.

[9] Olivo, Antonio, “Data Center Backlash Fuels Prince William Board Chair’s Election Loss,” The Washington Post, June 21, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/dc-md-va/2023/06/21/ann-wheeler-data-centers-election/.

[10] Savery, Hunter, “Anti-Data-Center Activist Eric Gagnon Narrowly Wins Warrenton Special Election,” Fauquier Times, Prince William Times.com, November 7, 2023, https://www.fauquier.com/news/article_ae253830-7d29-11ee-82f4-1b04e375e95e.html.

[11] Peters, Ben, “Ian Lovejoy Wins 22nd House District Race,” Inside NoVa.com, November 7, 2023, https://www.insidenova.com/headlines/ian-lovejoy-wins-22nd-house-district-race/article_880009ee-7dad-11ee-ad75-a38c14ac0cc1.html.

[12] Peters, Ben, “After Bitter Election, Chair Candidates Unite to Oppose Devlin Technology Park Data Center in Bristow.”

[13] Curiously, Jefferson received a $10,000 campaign contribution from none other than Stanley Martin Homes: “After Bitter Election, Chair Candidates Unite to Oppose Devlin Technology Park Center in Bristow.”

[14] Osaka, Shannon, “A New Frontier in Water Wars: Your Internet Use,” The Washington Post, April 25, 2023, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2023/04/25/data-centers-drought-water-use/.

[15] Chapman, Andrew, “U.S. Data Centers Rely on Water from Stressed Basins,” Eos, July 12, 2021, https://eos.org/articles/u-s-data-centers-rely-on-water-from-stressed-basins

[16] Patrizio, Andy, “High CPU Temps Are Here to Stay,” Network World, November 17, 2023, https://www.networkworld.com/article/1247693/high-cpu-temps-are-here-to-stay.html.

[17] Patrizio, Andy,” Data centers aren’t ready for AI, Schneider warns,” Network World, October 3, 2023, https://www.networkworld.com/article/957316/data-centers-aren-t-ready-for-ai-schneider-warns.html

[18] The Engineering Mindset, “How are Data Centers Cooled ?”, YouTube video, November 22, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=vZkA0z9JRgw

[19] O’Brien, Matt, and Hannah Fingerhut, “Artificial Intelligence Tech behind ChatGPT Guzzles Iowa Water, Researchers Say,” Oregon Live, September 11, 2023, https://www.oregonlive.com/business/2023/09/artificial-intelligence-tech-behind-chatgpt-guzzles-iowa-water-researchers-say.html.

[20] Strong, Jared, “Urbandale Poised to Vote on Water Regionalization,” Iowa Capital Dispatch (blog), January 10, 2022, https://iowacapitaldispatch.com/2022/01/10/urbandale-poised-to-vote-on-water-regionalization/.

[21] West Des Moines Water Works, “Metro Water Regionalization Update,” September 18, 2023, https://www.wdmww.com/ciww.aspx.

[22] Higgins, Chris, “Creation of central Iowa regional water utility takes another step forward,” Des Moines Register, March 31, 2023, https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/local/2023/03/31/central-iowa-water-works-could-be-in-place-by-the-end-of-2023/70064496007/

[23] Osaka, Shannon, “A New Frontier in Water Wars: Your Internet Use.”

[24] Rogoway, Mike, The Oregonian/OregonLive, “The Dalles Sues to Keep Google’s Water Use a Secret,” Oregon Live, February 9, 2023, https://www.oregonlive.com/silicon-forest/2021/11/the-dalles-sues-to-keep-googles-water-use-a-secret.html.

[25] Rogoway, Mike, “The Dalles Settles Lawsuit over Google’s Data Centers, Will Disclose Water Use,” Oregon Live, February 22, 2023, https://www.oregonlive.com/silicon-forest/2022/12/the-dalles-settles-public-records-lawsuit-over-googles-data-centers-will-disclose-water-use.html.

[26] Selsky, Andrew, “Oregon City Drops Fight to Keep Google Water Use Private | AP News,” AP News, December 15, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/technology-business-oregon-the-dalles-climate-and-environment-f63f313b0ebde0d60aeb3dd58f51991c.

[27] Sattiraju, Nikitha, “The Secret Cost of Google’s Data Centers: Billions of Gallons of Water to Cool Servers,” Time, April 2, 2020, https://time.com/5814276/google-data-centers-water/.

[28] McCammon, Sarah, “Google Moves In And Wants To Pump 1.5 Million Gallons Of Water Per Day,” NPR, May 8, 2017, sec. National, https://www.npr.org/2017/05/08/527214026/google-moves-in-and-wants-to-pump-1-5-million-gallons-of-water-per-day.

[29] W.W. Associates, “Pump Storage Reservoir Project”, presentation made September 25, 2017 at a Greene County Town Hall Meeting (slide deck)

[30] Schafrik, Cathy, “Greene County Water and Sewer Board of Supervisors Meeting.”, September 26, 2023 (slide deck)

[31] Gibbs, Susan, “Where’s the Water ?,” Daily Progress, May 1, 2008, https://dailyprogress.com/community/greenenews/news/wheres-the-water/article_5b5a7138-15a3-53b7-96ff-d5cacaadcd4e.html.

[32] Rivanna Water and Sewer Authority, “Drinking Water,” Rivanna Authority, January 1, 2023, https://www.rivanna.org/drinking-water/.

[33] Louisa County, ‘F.A.Q. AWS,’ accessed December 4, 2023, Louisa County government web page, https://www.louisacounty.gov/faq.aspx?qid=264

[34] Swinhoe, Dan, “Amazon files for 1.7 million sq ft data center campus in Louisa County, Virginia,” Data Center Dynamics, September 26, 2023, https://www.datacenterdynamics.com/en/news/amazon-files-for-17-million-sq-ft-data-center-campus-in-louisa-county-virginia/

[35] Purcell, Tammy, “County Provides More Details about Planned AWS Data Center Campuses,” Substack newsletter, Engage Louisa (blog), September 11, 2023, https://tammypurcell.substack.com/p/county-provides-more-details-about.

[36] Purcell, Tammy, “County Provides More Details about Planned AWS Data Center Campuses”

[37] Purcell, Tammy, “Plans for Data Center Campuses Take Step Forward,” Substack newsletter, Engage Louisa (blog), November 12, 2023, https://tammypurcell.substack.com/p/this-week-in-county-government-election-5db.

[38] Accessed November 27, 2023, https://droughtmonitor.unl.edu/CurrentMap/StateDroughtMonitor.aspx?fips_51109

[39] NOAA, “Record drought gripped much of the U.S. in 2022,” January 10, 2023, NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) website, https://www.noaa.gov/news/record-drought-gripped-much-of-us-in-2022

[40] Purcell, Tammy, “Plans for Data Center Campuses Take Step Forward”

[41] Purcell, Tammy, “After two delays, supes to consider changes to Zion Town Center,” Substack newsletter, Engage Louisa (blog), March 5, 2023, https://tammypurcell.substack.com/p/this-week-in-county-government-after-632?utm_source=%2Fsearch%2Fdevelopment&utm_medium=reader2

[42] Michon, Heather, “James River Water Project costs could top $35 million,” Fluvanna Review, January 5, 2023, https://fluvannareview.com/2023/01/james-river-water-project-costs-could-top-35-million/

[43] Louisa County also maintains an ‘Industrial Park Well’ as a ‘standby source’ of water

[44] Armesto, Jason, “Orange County could be sued for alleged FOIA violations,” The Daily Progress, November 25, 2023, https://dailyprogress.com/news/local/government-politics/orange-county-could-be-sued-for-alleged-foia-violations/article_3389f118-87e4-11ee-b019-fb5b13151769.html?fbclid=IwAR0wKlBg_s6SeVIWwOljtsF-dXptNUFi2qCvpuIwsU4BRCdCShh5ALadgps#tracking-source=home-top-story

[45] Piedmont Environmental Council, “Wilderness Crossing Rezoning,” November 17, 2023, https://www.pecva.org/wilderness-crossing/

[46] Pipkin, Whitney, “Developers strike contamination from Virginia gold mines,” Bay Journal, February 22, 2022, https://www.bayjournal.com/news/pollution/developers-strike-contamination-from-virginia-gold-mines/article_e13b5500-958c-11ec-b325-e7be704ed91b.html

[47] In 2010, the state declared a 10 mile portion of the Rapidan River, adjacent to the proposed Wilderness Crossing and its 4,750 residential and commercial units, as ‘impaired’ due to mercury contamination. Poole, Jeff, “Planning commissioner raises questions about defunct gold mines on Wilderness Crossing site,” Orange County Review, November 19, 2021, https://dailyprogress.com/news/community/orangenews/planning-commissioner-raises-questions-about-defunct-gold-mines-on-wilderness-crossing-site/article_e528dec2-48b0-11ec-9f1c-4f5cc756715d.html

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The Schilling Show frequently publishes guest editorials from community contributors on topics of interest to this audience. The views expressed within do not necessarily represent the views of the publisher, although they may. For consideration of publication as a guest editorialist, please send an email to The Schilling Show.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Are the Louisa County officials going to file bogus charges against landowners in order to confiscate their property and seize their assets to build these data centers?

  2. Another in the “Great Rock n’ Roll Swindle” (the quote the Sex Pistols) that municipalities–either intentionally or due to their stupidity–foist onto its citizenry. The business management of these companies are far smarter, more nuanced, more conniving and forward thinking than the pols in the counties/cities. Water, electricity, obsolescence, minimal job creation, land use…The county comes up on the short end of the deal with these horrid big boxes.

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