Crook County is situated in one of the driest parts of the state — it’s one of two counties in Oregon to be completely in the highest level on the U.S. Drought Monitor. Now, one of the county’s biggest employers is trying to combat the drought with an aggressive water restoration program.
Facebook’s parent company Meta, which operates a data storage center on the outskirts of Prineville, is implementing two projects it says will improve water availability in Crook County.
The social media giant says the projects will help it to achieve its water conservation goals, which include being “water positive” by 2030, meaning that it will return more water to the environment than it consumes at its facilities.
Meta, which also owns Oculus, Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp, plans to accomplish this feat by partnering with environmental groups and federal regulators to restore degraded habitats in Oregon and five other states. It is also upgrading its technologies to make its data centers more water efficient.
Technological developments in the last decade, as well as the use of outside air for cooling, have allowed Meta’s data centers “to operate 80% more water efficiently on average compared to the industry standard,” said Melanie Roe, a spokesperson for Meta.
“We see opportunities for additional gains in the coming years, particularly as our infrastructure grows, and we’ll need to develop water-efficient designs for different climates,” Roe added.
Meta is under a microscope in the places where it operates as its data centers use large amounts of water to cool their servers and maintain optimal humidity levels. In Prineville, data centers source their water from the municipality.
In Prineville last year, Meta used 445,000 cubic meters of water, equivalent to 117.5 million gallons of water — enough water to fill 178 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Meta’s use of water is increasing. The data center, a collection of buildings, is still under construction and when complete will be a 4.6 million square foot campus.
To counter that water use, Meta is helping to fund an aquifer recharge project with the city of Prineville. A second project is restoring the degraded Ingram Meadow in the Ochoco National Forest.
Meta says the aquifer recharge project utilizes the natural storage found underground in the city to store water during cooler, wetter winters. A portion of the water can be recovered during hotter summer periods when water is less available.
The project, which became operational earlier this year, works by conveying a portion of winter stream flows in the Crooked River to the local groundwater supply through injection and extraction wells.
Authorities in Prineville are confident that the work being done won’t leave Prineville high and dry.
“The water management tool allows the city to meet peak demands by taking advantage of the natural storage space found in geologic formations underground,” said Eric Klann, Prineville’s city engineer.
Klann said the project recharged 34 million gallons of water in 2020 and 98 million gallons this year. Next year, 140 million gallons will be recharged, he said.
The system is cost-effective and resilient, said Klann, and he sees it as a good long-term solution for the city to manage its water needs.
“We are committed to continually exploring ways to support the community’s water needs in an environmentally sustainable way,” he said.
Bruce Scanlon, manager for Ochoco Irrigation District, added that he is not aware of any impacts on local water resources that can be attributed to the data centers.
“My guess is that if we were going to see something, it would have become clear last year because of the severity of the drought,” said Scanlon.
Meta’s other project in the area, the Ingram Meadow Restoration Project, spans 15 acres in the headwaters of Auger Creek, in the Ochocos northwest of Prineville.
Logging and overgrazing dried out most of the meadow in the early 1900s. Meta’s goal here is to refill the water table and increase water availability in the late summer months.
Meta says in addition to improving a water source for humans, rehabilitating Ingram Meadow will also benefit elk, as well as fish in the streams and creeks downstream from Auger Creek.
Prineville has also received help from Apple, which also has a data center in the city. Similar to the Meta project, the Apple-sponsored program stores drinking water in the airport area aquifer for use during peak demand in summer.
These and other conservation projects have helped Prineville keep a lid on its water use. In 2008 the city used 625 million gallons of water from its Valley Floor Aquifer. In recent years the city’s demand has ranged from 582 million gallons in 2019 to 665 million gallons in 2020, according to data provided by Klann.
While Prineville residents may be concerned about the data center’s water use, few in town question the positive impact these massive facilities have on the local economy.
Since Meta opened the data center in 2011, the company has invested $2 billion in the facilities and employed hundreds of workers. Prineville now boasts more than 370 jobs in data processing, hosting, and related services, according to the Oregon Employment Department.