Water Is Life, and Also a Trade Secret
Google won't tell you how much water it uses and an Oregon city has its back.
This is Boondoggle, the newsletter about corporations ripping off our states and cities. If you’re not currently a subscriber, please click the green button below to sign up. Thanks!
Google may have been cowed into turning down subsidies for new office buildings in a few major cities, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t up to its usual shenanigans outside of those metro areas. Out in Oregon, in fact, Google is embroiled in a controversy in which it’s gotten a town to argue that Google’s water usage should be considered a trade secret, not public information.
Due to the state’s significant use of data center subsidies, most major tech corporations have a presence in Oregon. Google recently received subsidies for two new data centers in The Dalles, a city of about 13,000 people some 80 miles outside of Portland, where it already has a massive operation. (Google acquired the land for the new centers back in 2016, begging the question of why they need to be subsidized at all since Google clearly intends to build them no mater what, but we’ll leave that aside for now.)
On Monday, Nov. 8, The Dalles’ city council will be voting on a plan for Google’s water usage at the new facilities. Neither the city council nor Google will divulge publicly how much water Google will use under this new plan, because the city councilors are bound by a non-disclosure agreement. They’ll only confirm that the city’s current capacity can’t handle it, so Google is paying for some sort of upgrade.
In fact, the city is suing a local news organization in state court on Google’s behalf in order to keep Google’s water use secret, after a district attorney ruled two weeks ago that Google’s water use should be subject to public records law. The city’s suit argues that Google’s water should be exempt from public disclosure because it is a trade secret; even if The Dalles loses, the suit will push disclosure past when the city council vote occurs, so will achieve its purpose all the same.
Now, what we know generally is that data centers use massive amounts of water, in order to prevent them from overheating. Google alone is responsible for billions of gallons of water usage across the U.S. each year — 2.3 billion gallons, to be specific, and that’s only what’s been disclosed, which most of Google’s water usage isn’t, since it fights every kind of transparency measure.
The concern voiced by critics in The Dalles is that Google will be taking some unknown amount of water in an area that is experiencing a pretty severe drought. And that’s not uncommon: As one study found, “one-fifth of data center servers direct water footprint comes from moderately to highly water stressed watersheds, while nearly half of servers are fully or partially powered by power plants located within water stressed regions.” Farmers in the area seem particularly aggrieved about not being able to find out what sort of water usage Google is planning. (Facebook is involved in a similar dispute in Mesa, Arizona.)
A logical question to ask at this point is, of course: How is the amount of water a data center uses a trade secret? I’m honestly not sure why anyone takes the claim seriously; it’s just an amount, not an explanation for how the mechanisms inside the data center work. Especially since water is a public resource, it seems a significant abuse of public records law to claim trade secret exemptions here. Other Oregon cities, for the record, have no problem disclosing how much water various corporations use, including how much Apple uses for its data centers.
As the district attorney wrote earlier in rejecting Google’s trade secret claim, “The document simply states the amount of water used by Google in The Dalles. … Nothing about water use gives away the design or actual use of the water, just the amount. Without something more, the City fails to meet its burden to uphold its claim of exemption.”
My guess as to why Google makes this claim is it uses and wastes massive amounts of water, and also receives discounts on that water from local municipalities, which may then resort to rate hikes on other users to balance their books. A similar dynamic exists around data center energy usage, as I wrote about here, which is significant since nearly 2 percent of the electricity used in the U.S. powers data centers.
So Google demands secrecy as a condition of its investment and pliant politicians and utility officials go along with it in the name of job creation (even though data centers don’t actually create many jobs at all). In this case, that means a cynical lawsuit to push disclosure past when having the numbers out in public could affect the political debate.
Like with tax subsidies though, water and other utilities are public goods controlled by public bodies, so the public deserves to know how much is being used by corporate entities, how much they’re paying for it, and whether those deals warrant the re-election or removal of the officials who negotiated them.
I guess it boils down to my headline: Water is life, not a trade secret, and communities get to know who’s tapping into their resources.
FUN EVENT!: My colleagues and I at the American Economic Liberties Project are hosting a really great virtual event next week. “Building Local Power to Confront Corporate Dominance: Lessons from State and City Leaders” will feature keynote remarks from New York State Senator Michael Gianaris and Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, as well as a panel that I’ll moderate with Illinois State Sen. Robert Peters, Florida State Rep. Anna Eskamani, and Maritza Silva-Farrell, the Executive Director of ALIGN in New York.
ELECTION NIGHT: Voters across the country rejected new public funding for sports stadium during yesterday’s elections, including Albuquerque voters defeating a planned $50 million minor league soccer stadium by a 2-1 margin. Excellent work voters!
ONE MORE THING: Speaking of Rep. Eskamani, she once again introduced a series of bills to bring transparency and accountability to Florida’s wretched hive of corporate tax villiany. One would enter Florida into the interstate compact to eliminate corporate tax giveaways, and another would abolish an absurd tax break program that is supposed to benefit struggling urban neighborhoods, but really just benefits Universal Studios.
The final bill would repeal the Florida law that allows local officials to sign non-disclosure agreements and other confidentiality measures when negotiating economic subsidy deals. Great stuff all around!
Thanks for reading this edition of Boondoggle. If you liked it, please take a moment to click the little heart under the headline or below. And forward it to friends, family, or neighbors using the green buttons. Every click and share really helps.
If you don’t subscribe already and you’d like to sign up, just click below.
Finally, if you’d like to pick up a copy of my book, The Billionaire Boondoggle: How Our Politicians Let Corporations and Bigwigs Steal Our Money and Jobs, go here.
— Pat Garofalo