Large tech data centers raise concerns over Western water scarcity

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THE DALLES, Oregon – Conflicts over water are as old as history itself, but Google’s massive data centers on the outskirts of this Oregon city on the Columbia River represent an emerging concern of the 21st century.

Google wants to build at least two more data centers in The Dalles, worrying some residents who fear there will ultimately not be enough water for everyone, including the area’s farms and orchards, which are by far the biggest users.

In the United States, there has been a slight setback as tech companies build and expand data centers – conflicts are likely to grow as water becomes a more valuable resource amid the threat of climate change and as the demand for cloud computing increases. Some tech giants have used cutting-edge research and development to find less efficient cooling methods, but some say companies can still do more to be environmentally sustainable.

The concerns are understandable in The Dalles, the seat of Wasco County, which suffers from extreme and exceptional drought, according to the US Drought Monitor. Last summer, the region experienced its hottest days on record, reaching 118 degrees Fahrenheit (48 Celsius) at The Dalles.

The Slabs are adjacent to the mighty Columbia River, but the new data centers could not use that water and would instead have to draw water from rivers and groundwater that passed through the city’s water treatment plant.

However, the snowpack in the nearby Cascade Range that feeds the aquifers varies greatly from year to year and glaciers are melting. Most of the aquifers in north-central Oregon are in decline, according to the US Geological Survey Groundwater Resources Program.

Adding to the unease: the city’s 15,000 residents don’t know how much water the proposed data centers will use, because Google calls it a trade secret. Even city councilors, who are due to vote on the proposal on November 8, had to wait until this week to find out.

Dave Anderson, public works manager for The Dalles, said Google secured the rights to 3.9 million gallons of water per day by purchasing land that once housed an aluminum smelter. Google is asking for less water for new data centers than this amount and would transfer those rights to the city, Anderson said.

“The city is coming out on top,” he said.

For its part, Google said it was “committed to the long-term health of the county’s economy and natural resources.”

“We are delighted to continue conversations with local authorities on an agreement that allows us to continue to grow while supporting the community,” Google said, adding that the expansion proposal includes a potential aquifer program to store water. water and increase the supply during drier periods.

The United States is home to 30% of the world’s data centers, more than any other country. Some data centers try to become more efficient in water consumption, for example by recycling the same water several times in a center before discharging it. Google even uses treated sewage, instead of using potable water like many data centers do, to cool its facilities in Douglas County, Georgia.

Facebook’s first data center took advantage of the cold desert air in Prineville, Oregon to cool its servers, and went even further by building a center in Lulea, Sweden, near the Arctic Circle .

Microsoft has even placed a small data center, enclosed in what looks like a giant cigar, on the seabed off Scotland. After picking up the barnacle-encrusted container last year after two years, company employees saw an improvement in overall reliability as the servers were not subject to temperature fluctuations and corrosion from the weather. oxygen and moisture. Team leader Ben Cutler said experience shows data centers can be kept cool without tapping into freshwater resources.

A study published in May by researchers at Virginia Tech and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed that one-fifth of data centers rely on water from moderately to heavily used watersheds.

Tech companies typically consider tax breaks and the availability of cheap electricity and land when setting up data centers, said Landon Marston, co-author of the study, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech.

They need to take water impacts more seriously and place facilities in areas where they can be better maintained, both for the sake of the environment and for their own bottom line, Marston said.

“It is also a risk and resilience issue that data centers and their operators face as the drought we are seeing in the West is expected to worsen,” Marston said.

About an hour’s drive east of The Dalles, Amazon returns some of the water used by its massive data centers. Amazon’s sprawling campuses, spread between Boardman and Umatilla, Oregon, collide with farmland, a cheese factory, and neighborhoods. Like many data centers, they use water primarily in the summer, with the servers being air-cooled the rest of the year.

About two-thirds of the water used by Amazon evaporates. The rest is processed and sent to the irrigation canals that supply crops and pastures.

Umatilla City Manager Dave Stockdale appreciates that farms and ranches receive this water, as the city’s main issue with the growth of Amazon’s facilities was that the city’s water treatment plant could not have handled the data center dump.

John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon, which seeks to reform water laws to protect and restore rivers, criticized it as a “corporate feel-good tactic.”

“Does this actually mitigate the damage caused by the actual use of the water by the server farm to other interests that may also use the same water source, such as the environment, fish and water?” wildlife? Said DeVoe.

Adam Selipsky, CEO of Amazon Web Services, insists that Amazon feels responsible for its impacts.

“We were intentionally very aware of the use of water in one of these projects,” he said, adding that the centers brought economic activity and jobs to the region.

Dawn Rasmussen, who lives on the outskirts of The Dalles, fears her town will make a mistake negotiating with Google, comparing it to David versus Goliath.

She has seen her well water drop year after year and worries sooner or later there won’t be enough for everyone.

“At the end of the day, if there isn’t enough water, who will win? she asked.

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Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky



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