Huge Google data centers in the US are sparking worries about scarce western water

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Data centers are now an important part of modern computer systems, helping people stream movies on Netflix, transact transactions through PayPal, post updates on Facebook, store trillions of photos, and much more. But a single system can also circulate millions of liters of water per day to keep hot equipment cool.

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

The United States has seen some minor setbacks as tech companies build and expand data centers – conflict is likely to increase as water becomes a more precious resource in the face of the threat of climate change, and demand for cloud computing grows. Some tech giants have used cutting-edge research and development to find less effective cooling methods, but some say companies can do more to be environmentally sustainable.

The concerns at The Dalles, the seat of Wasco County, which is suffering from extreme and extraordinary drought, according to the US Drought Monitor, are understandable. The region saw the hottest days on record last summer, hitting 48 degrees Celsius in The Dalles.

The Dalles borders 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 has passed through the city’s sewage treatment plant.

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

In addition, there is the unease: The 15,000 city dwellers do not know how much water the planned data centers will consume because Google calls it a trade secret. Even the city councilors, who are due to vote on the proposal on November 8th, had to wait this week.

Dave Anderson, director of public works at The Dalles, said Google got the rights to 3.9 million gallons of water per day when it bought land that used to be an aluminum smelter. Google is asking for less water than that amount for the new data centers and would transfer those rights to the city, Anderson said.

“The city is moving forward,” 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 pleased to continue talking with local officials about an agreement that will allow us to continue growing while serving the community,” said Google, adding that the expansion proposal opens up a potential aquifer program to store water and to increase the supply during the period includes drier periods.

The US is home to 30 percent of the world’s data centers, more than any other country. Some data centers try to make water use more efficient, for example by recycling the same water through a center several times before it is drained. Google even uses recycled wastewater, rather than drinking water, as it does in many data centers, to cool its Douglas County, Georgia facility.

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

Microsoft has even placed a tiny data center that looks like a giant cigar on the ocean floor off Scotland. After salvaging the barnacle-encrusted container last year after two years, the company’s employees noticed an improvement in overall reliability as the servers were not exposed to temperature fluctuations and corrosion from oxygen and moisture. Team leader Ben Cutler said the experiment shows that data centers can be kept cool without tapping into freshwater resources.

A study published in May by researchers at Virginia Tech and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that one-fifth of data centers rely on water from moderately to highly stressed catchment areas.

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

They need to consider the effects of water more seriously and relocate the facilities to regions where they can be better maintained, both for the benefit of the environment and for their own gain, Marston said.

“It is also a risk and resistance problem that data centers and their operators will face as the drought we are experiencing in the west is likely to get worse,” said Marston.

About an hour’s drive east of The Dalles, Amazon returns some of the water that its huge data centers consume. Amazon’s sprawling campus, dotted between Boardman and Umatilla, Oregon, is joined by farmland, a cheese factory, and neighborhoods. Like many data centers, they mostly use water in the summer while the servers are air-cooled the rest of the year.

About two thirds of the water that Amazon consumes evaporates. The rest is processed and directed to irrigation canals that feed crops and pastures.

Umatilla City Manager Dave Stockdale appreciates that farms and ranches are getting this water, as the main problem the city faced in growing the Amazon assets was that the municipal water treatment plant could not have handled the drainage of the data centers.

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

“Is it actually an alleviation of the damage caused by the server farm’s actual water use for other interests that may also use the same spring water, such as the environment, fish and wildlife?” said DeVoe.

Adam Selipsky, CEO of Amazon Web Services, emphasizes that Amazon feels responsible for its impact.

“We have been careful about water usage in each 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 that her city is making a mistake in negotiating with Google and compares it to David versus Goliath.

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

“Who wins at the end of the day when there isn’t enough water?” She asked.

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