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'Eco-conscious' Google data center gobbled up nearly 300 million gallons of Oregon city's water amid droughts, tried to keep it secret

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Photo by Virendra Singh Gosain/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Google says it seeks to "foster sustainability at scale" and to reduce the "environmental impact" of its operations. The tech giant also claims to provide "critical information ... in moments of crisis."

When the residents of The Dalles, Oregon, attempted to figure out precisely how much of their water was being used by the local Google data center amid a drought affecting over 540,000 residents in the state, the city sued on the company's behalf to keep the amount a secret.

That lawsuit was dropped this week and with it the veil hiding the full extent of Google's water consumption.

Google released its annual water metrics for 2021, revealing that it had consumed 274.5 million gallons of water last year. It withdrew 358.3 million gallons and only discharged 83.8 million gallons.

According to John Devoe, the executive director of WaterWatch, that's enough water to cover the city's seven square miles in water 3 inches deep.

What are the details?

Last year, Google demanded more water to cool its data centers and indicated it planned to build additional server farms along the Columbia River. This prompted some local residents, particularly farmers, to worry.

After all, according to Water Footprint Calculator, a 15-megawatt data center can use up to 360,000 gallons of water a day for the purposes of cooling servers that get hot during use. Google has admitted that its average data center consumes roughly 450,000 gallons of water per day.

That's a lot of water at during the worst megadrought in Oregon and the Western U.S. on record.

Citing transparency concerns and the public's right to know, the Oregonian, the state's biggest newspaper, pressed the issue.

Ahead of a city council vote last fall on a $28.5 million water pact with Google — whereby the company would be entitled to more water after paying to upgrade the city's water system — the city sued the paper on the tech giant's behalf to keep that information from spilling out.

The suit claimed that the company's water consumption data "are exempt from disclosure as 'trade secrets' ... because (a) the information is not patented; (b) the information is used in Design's business and is known only to certain individuals within the company; (c) the information has actual or potential commercial value; (d) if disclosed, the information would give its users an opportunity to obtain a business advantage over Design's competitors who do not know or use it; and (e) the public interest does not demand disclosure in the particular instance."

Ellen Osoinach, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press attorney who represented the Oregonian, stated, "The information itself is of the highest public interest."

"This is a limited, communal resource and the West is in a drought," noted Osoinach.

She underscored that there are "data centers all over the country and right here in Oregon, and the amount of water they consume is something that’s incredibly important to all water users."

The Associated Press reported that city officials dropped the 13-month legal battle this week.

Accordingly, the city will pay $53,000 to cover the Oregonian's legal costs. Google committed to paying both this settlement and the city's $106,000 legal costs.

The Dalles Mayor Richard Mays indicated that "we backed off" because Google had determined its water consumption did not constitute a trade secret, the crux of the legal argument for continued secrecy.

The company confirmed that it changed its position and has released its water records.

At 274.5 million gallons of water, Google's water consumption in The Dalles last year may be high, but the company is guzzling water elsewhere in the nation at even higher levels.

For instance, in Council Bluffs, Iowa, Google downed 845.8 million gallons last year. In Mayes County, Oklahoma, the amount was 671.2 million gallons.

Across the U.S., the purportedly eco-conscious company drained 3.36 billion gallons of water in 2021 alone.

Urs Hölzle, senior vice president of Google's technical infrastructure, wrote in a Nov. 21 Google blog post, "Water is the most efficient means of cooling. When used responsibly, water cooling can play an important role in reducing emissions and mitigating climate change."

The "climate-conscious" approach Google favors evidently depends upon cooling servers down with potable water during a drought.

"Water-cooled data centers use about 10% less energy and thus emit roughly 10% less carbon emissions than many air-cooled data centers. In 2021, water cooling helped us reduce the energy-related carbon footprint of our data center portfolio by roughly 300,000 tons of CO2," added Hölzle.

DeVoe said, "I don't like to see the region's rivers and aquifers compromised so that Google can make money off of advertising and data sales. To me, that's a poor exchange."

According to KATU, while conditions have improved somewhat in the state, when Google was taking its big annual drink in 2021, 21% of the state was in "exceptional drought."

The state government indicated that water supplies in many Oregon reservoirs have been much lower than usual, causing "significant impacts on community water supplies, agricultural yields, and the health of ecosystems."

The government has a help page instructing residents how they can use water wisely, suggesting, for example, that Oregonians shorten their shower times and use ice cubes that fall on the floor to water a plant.

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