Microsoft's data centers in West Des Moines, Iowa guzzled massive amounts of water last year, the Associated Press reported earlier this month, to keep cool while training OpenAI's ChatGPT-4, the Microsoft-backed company's most advanced publicly available large language model.
Critics point out a further inconvenient detail: this happened in the midst of a more than three-year drought, further taxing a stressed water system that's been so dry this summer that nature lovers couldn't even paddle canoes in local rivers.
"It's a recipe for disaster," Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement organizer Jake Grobe told Futurism. "ChatGPT is not a necessity for human life, and yet we are literally taking water to feed a computer."
Before the AI boom, arid places like Arizona were already facing water strain from data centers. But what will the future hold, both in those regions and in relatively water-flush areas like Iowa, as a result of the sudden increased demand for AI combined with the growing impact of climate change?
"It's already bad and it's going to get much worse," said Grobe. "Climate change is going to bring more frequent droughts to Iowa."
The AI era is just getting started, but early numbers suggest that it could become extraordinarily resource-intensive.
Microsoft increased worldwide water consumption by a whopping 34 percent — up to almost 1.7 billion gallons annually — last year, which outside researchers told the AP is most likely due to increased AI training. That's dwarfed by Google, which used 5.6 billion gallons last year, a 20 percent jump that's also likely attributable to machine learning. And you'll recall that ChatGPT wasn't even publicly released until the end of November, with AI use spiking enormously this year — so those figures are likely only the tip of the iceberg.
"The worst thing about Microsoft and West Des Moines is that Microsoft’s highest water consumption occurs on the hottest days of the year," Neil Ruddy, the former city administrator of Carlisle, which is located about 20 minutes east of West Des Moines, told Futurism.
That's all even more worrisome in the context of a 2021 study, spearheaded by Virginia Tech researchers, which found many American data centers depend on stressed water systems. Even states like lush Florida face a predicament, because the water footprint of data centers is so large that they have the potential to put pressure on local watersheds, Virginia Tech researcher Md Abu Bakar Siddik told Futurism.
Iowa's water system is considered to be moderately stressed, said Siddik, who added that it will likely get worse with climate change.
"Climate change or other factors can reduce the water availability in that region," said Siddik. "Increased demand of agriculture because of population growth and increased number of data centers that ramp up the water demand in the region that could lead to high water stress in the region. Iowa can be disrupted by these events because there are already a high number of data centers compared to other states in the Midwest."
The AP reported that Microsoft needed a staggering 11.5 million gallons of water in July last year in West Des Moines for its three data centers just before ChatGPT training was reportedly done. At the time, the city was considered to be under abnormally dry conditions. August numbers exceeded July's at a total of 13.4 million gallons, according to data from West Des Moines Water Works. And dry conditions in the city worsened to a moderate drought that same month. The year before, in 2021, Microsoft also topped out at a high of 14.5 million gallons in July.
Just looking at numbers starting in 2020, Microsoft has been consistently in the top three water consumers in the district, with two more data centers currently under construction, adding to the 19 total currently in Iowa.
Thankfully, Microsoft only requires water to cool its Iowa data centers when temperatures go over about 85 degrees Fahrenheit, and luckily Iowa doesn't exceed that number for most of the year, the AP reported.
But those high temperatures during warmer months — hence the high water usage in data centers — coincide with times when the water system is already most stressed, with farms as a major pressure factor.
"They're giving all the good water to ChatGPT," wrote one Redditor.
"Oh neat, love corporations sucking up water during a drought so they can better teach AI to undermine jobs," griped another.
Water pumped into data centers often evaporates after cooling the facilities or ends up as "blowdown," which is thick, briney wastewater that needs to be treated — definitely not ready to be easily recycled back into the local water supply.
In an implicit acknowledgement of resource challenges, the local water utility in West Des Moines wrote in a 2022 document obtained by the AP that it and city officials "will only consider future data center projects" if they can “demonstrate and implement technology to significantly reduce peak water usage from the current levels."
In a response to our questions, a Microsoft spokesperson said that the company is monitoring the environmental impact of data centers and aims to be "carbon negative, water positive and zero waste by 2030.”
West Des Moines Water Works general manager Christina A. Murphy told Futurism that Microsoft has been "conscious of their water use" and "are continuing to look at their processes to become more water efficient."
She also added the utility has been monitoring "drought conditions as we have been the last couple of years" and "have been able to meet our customers’ needs to date."
Despite that optimism, though, the future looks increasingly dry.
If you take into account increased temperatures from climate change, the growing number of companies stuffing OpenAI and its competitors' offerings into their products, and new data centers yet to be built for the nascent AI tech boom, local officials across the country and the world will likely need to make some tough decisions that balance the water needs of residents, the environment, and economic growth.
Ruddy, the former city administrator of Carlisle, said he favors one part of that equation.
"I think residents need water more than supercomputers do," he quipped.
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