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Oregon city drops fight to keep Google water use private

Residents of The Dalles, Oregon, should soon know how much of their water Google’s data centers have been using to cool the computers inside the cavernous buildings — information that previously was deemed a trade secret.

Data centers around the world help people stream movies, store trillions of photos and conduct daily business online, but a single facility can churn through hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per day. The issue is a sensitive one in The Dalles, which is experiencing a drought and where some residents have seen water levels in their wells drop.

A lawsuit by the city on behalf of Google — against Oregon’s biggest newspaper, The Oregonian/OregonLive — that sought to keep the water-use information confidential was dropped, the newspaper reported Thursday.

City officials abandoned the 13-month legal fight to keep the information secret and committed to release the company’s water consumption in future years. The California-based company has plans to potentially build more data centers in The Dalles.

In an email, Google confirmed Thursday that its water use numbers would no longer be a trade secret.

“It is one example of the importance of transparency, which we are aiming to increase … which includes site-level water usage numbers for all our U.S. data center sites, including The Dalles,” Google spokesperson Devon Smiley said.

In a Nov. 21 blog posting, Google said that all of its global data centers consumed approximately 4.3 billion gallons (16.3 billion liters) of water in 2021, which it said is comparable to the water needed to irrigate and maintain 29 golf courses in the southwest U.S. each year.

The Dalles Mayor Richard Mays said Google had previously insisted its water usage in The Dalles was a trade secret because the company was concerned about competitors knowing how it cools its servers, but then changed its position and agreed to release the water records for The Dalles.

“That’s why we backed off (the lawsuit),” Mays told The Oregonian/OregonLive.

In a settlement filed Wednesday with Wasco County Circuit Court, The Dalles agreed to provide 10 years of water use data for Google and to provide annual water usage in future years, the newspaper reported.

The Oregonian/OregonLive said the case represents a major test of Oregon public records law. The newspaper had requested Google’s records last year.

“This seemed to be a perfect example of a clash of two important storylines, both the expansion of big businesses and the public resource that they need to use,” Therese Bottomly, editor of The Oregonian/OregonLive, was quoted as saying.

Mays and Public Works Director Dave Anderson did not immediately respond to requests for further comment.

The information about the data centers’ water use could be available as early as this week.

The decision to back off the lawsuit came even as Google has been considering building two new data centers in The Dalles. The town lies along the mighty Columbia River, but the new data centers wouldn’t be able to use that water and instead would have to take water from rivers and groundwater that has gone through the city’s water treatment plant.

Communities in the West have been grappling with a more than 20-year megadrought that studies link to human-caused climate change. Google’s proposal worried some residents who fear there eventually won’t be enough water for everyone — including for area farms and fruit orchards, by far the biggest users.

The Dalles is adjacent to the the mighty Columbia River, but new data centers wouldn’t be able to use that water and instead would have to take water from rivers and groundwater that has gone through the city’s water treatment plant. The snowpack in the nearby Cascade Range that feeds the aquifers varies wildly year-to-year and glaciers are melting.

Dawn Rasmussen, who lives on the outskirts of The Dalles, has seen the level of her well water drop year after year and worried that sooner or later it would fall short.

“At the end of the day, if there’s not enough water, who’s going to win?” she said last year.

Town councilors voted unanimously in November 2021 to approve Google’s proposal to build two new data centers, even though the 15,000 town residents didn’t know how much water the proposed data centers would use. Even the town councilors themselves had to wait until a couple of weeks before the vote to find out the projected usage numbers.

John DeVoe, executive director of WaterWatch of Oregon, a conservation organization, said there should be no secrecy about these numbers.

“Water is a public resource,” DeVoe said. “The public deserves to know how much water is used — and from what sources — by those who take water from rivers and streams and pump water from aquifers.”

He said plans and information related to the use of water ought to be available to the public before government entities make permanent decisions about entitlements to water.

“That didn’t happen here,” DeVoe said. “No one ought to be able to hide the ball.”

The U.S. hosts 30% of the world’s data centers, more than any other country. Some data centers are trying to become more efficient in water consumption, for example by recycling the same water several times through a center before discharging it.

A study published last year by researchers at Virginia Tech and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory showed one-fifth of data centers rely on water from moderately to highly stressed watersheds.