Big tech has been putting large data farms in rural areas in the Pacific Northwest for years to take advantage of cheap hydroelectric power to run them, water to cool them, and generous local tax breaks to help fund them.
Data centers are large warehouses filled with computer servers. All the information gathered by websites such as Amazon and Facebook is stored in the server farms.
All of this has been controversial locally and throughout the region. For farmers and ranchers, the sticking point is water. In the arid, rural landscape that these facilities call home, water comes at a premium. Computer servers generate a lot of heat and tech firms need a lot of water to cool them.
A single data center consumes between 250,000 and 1 million gallons of water per day in the warmer summer months, when outside temperatures can top 100 degrees. The Apple facility in Prineville, Ore., for example, uses more than 27 million gallons of water a year.
To their credit, local leaders and the tech giants are working to temper the impact of extracting so much of a scarce resource.
In Prineville, Apple is using 5 million gallons of treated wastewater from the city’s sewer system to help cool its facility, leaving 5 million gallons of fresh water for other purposes.
In Umatilla, Ore., city leaders were faced with another problem. The water used to cool two data campuses in the small city flows into the sewer treatment system. With two more facilities under construction, the city faced the prospect of its sewer system being overwhelmed.
City manager Dave Stockdale says the water that comes out of the data centers is hot, but mostly clean. Both the city and Amazon began pondering ways they could reuse the water, adding benefit for the community.
Amazon now pipes some of that water to an irrigation canal run by the West Extension Irrigation District. The water takes a seven-mile route to a new headworks on the district’s canal at the northeast end of the city. Along the way it’s mixed with fresh water from the Columbia River, making the mixture suitable for irrigating crops on the 10,400 acres served by the district.
During this summer’s drought, this creative reuse made millions of gallons of water available to farmers in the region.
Amazon says it wants to find other ways to reuse the water that cools its facilities, and eventually wants a reutilization rate of 100%.
There are any number of reasons to be suspicious of the tech giants. Like many others, we question whether local jurisdictions reap the big rewards promised by companies that have located in their communities.
But, once in place these server farms are a fact of life and won’t be going anywhere soon. It only makes sense that the water they consume, and have been given right to, is reused to the extent possible.
We congratulate the companies and communities that have given farmers the benefit from water that would literally have gone down the drain, and encourage all efforts to reutilize this ever more precious resource.