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Oregon city courting Google data centers fights to keep their water usage secret

Chocolate Factory thirst hidden behind non-disclosure agreement claims

Google says responsible water usage is one of its top sustainability goals but the mega-corp tries to keep its data center water usage secret.

The City of The Dalles is located on the Columbia River in Wasco County, Oregon, and is the home of a major Google data center. The ad giant is looking at expanding its presence there and has been granted tax breaks to do so and is asking for more water, which has raised concerns among residents about increased demand at a time when 98 per cent of the county is in "extreme drought."

In September, Mike Rogoway, a reporter for The Oregonian, asked officials in The Dalles to disclose how much water Google used in 2020 and the city's total industry water usage over the past five years.

The City of The Dalles resisted, calling that information a trade secret that isn't subject to disclosure under state public records law. According to The Oregonian, Google has a non-disclosure agreement with the city.

Rogoway challenged that claim and on October 15th, Wasco County District Attorney Matthew Ellis approved the release of those records.

In response last week, city officials sued to prevent the disclosure of Google's water usage. The litigation, filed in Wasco County in Oregon Circuit Court [PDF], seeks a declaration from the court that the city need not reveal Google's water usage.

The city argues that the water records qualify as trade secrets because:

...the information (a) derives independent actual or potential economic value from not being generally known to the public or to persons who can obtain economic value from its disclosure or use and (b) is the subject of [Google-owned data center operator] Design’s reasonable efforts, under the circumstances, to maintain its secrecy.

In an email to The Register, Rogoway said, "Oregon public records law puts us in the odd, and uncomfortable, position of being engaged in litigation with a subject we're reporting on."

Asked about why he believes this is a matter of public concern, he pointed to the complaint and attached exhibits, wherein the following argument is made:

The public interest factors are equally compelling here. The water source is a public resource. While we may know that Google is poised to receive property tax exemptions costing taxpayers each year, we don’t know the equivalent cost of the city’s water supply. The public must know the company’s current water usage to understand the impact that volume has on the rest of the community – and what the projected impacts will have on future use under the expansion plan.

The Register asked Google whether it wishes to keep its water usage secret, and if so, why?

A Google spokesperson responded by providing information "on background" to the effect that Google has made some public commitments (cited below) about water usage and doesn't disclose water consumption at a site level.

In short, Google believes that responsible water usage is consistent with secret water usage and that a public company can consume a public resource without public accountability.

It is our understanding that one reason why Google desires to keep its water usage a secret is because it gives away the cooling load in a facility, and that in turn allows the number of servers in the building to be estimated, and the number of servers Google has is supposed to be a super top secret.

Hyperscalers like Google try not to let each other find out how much computing capacity they have in reserve, and they seemingly don't want normal folk to know how many millions of power and water-guzzling systems they together operate.

Data giant curiously shy on this one

Rogoway said the court has not decided whether Google's water usage should remain a secret, but that's not uncommon. "These cases typically take months to resolve in the courts," he said.

As noted in the court documents, Google's data center water usage is not an absolute secret. Such figures have been disclosed in Arizona, South Carolina, and Texas, and are sometimes a source of controversy. For example, according to Bloomberg, a legal filing [PDF] in Texas indicates that Google asked for up to 1.46 billion gallons of water annually for a new data center planned for Red Oak, Texas.

Concerns about water usage look likely to become more acute if predictions about climate change continue to translate into average temperature increases and drought and if companies like Google continue expanding their data center footprints.

Last year, Microsoft, another operator of large data centers around the globe, promised to put as much water back into the ecosystem as it removes by 2030. Not to be outdone, Google, in its 2021 Water Stewardship whitepaper [PDF], says by 2030 it "will replenish 120 per cent of the water we consume, on average, across our offices and data centers … where we operate."

Google talks about responsible water stewardship in its 2020 Sustainability Report [PDF] but it cites water usage statistics only for its offices, not for its data centers.

In the absence of transparent, accountable, verifiable water stewardship, Google at least provides an aggregate figure. In 2019, Google's "water withdrawal," which it referred to as "water consumption" in its reports from 2016 through 2018, reached 5.16 billion gallons, up from 4.17 billion in 2018, 3.07 billion in 2017, and 2.5 billion in 2016.

Maybe Google's plans for water harvesting for the air will help, but somehow we doubt it. ®

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