Prineville, Data Centers, and Water: There is a Cost

The Bend Bulletin recently reported on an aquifer recharge project by the City of Prineville which has received funding from Facebook and Apple, who use significant amounts of water to cool servers at their data centers in Prineville.  Here’s a more complete and balanced explanation of the project and its environmental impacts.  Facebook and Apple are trying to reduce their water footprint, but there’s more to the story than reported. 

While efficiency is improving, data centers continue to use enormous amounts of water.  According to the Oregon Water Resources Department’s Well Report Mapping Tool, the well on Facebook’s data center site has dropped 53 feet between 10/29/2010 and 4/2/2020.  Further, Prineville has inadequate water supplies to meet its long term needs for growth.

Prineville’s Aquifer Storage and Recovery project (ASR) injects water underground for subsequent use.  You can find the details of the project on the OWRD website.  In summary, the purpose of the ASR project is to take groundwater from other locations and store it in the highly contained* “Upper Aquifer” near the airport.  The primary source of recharge water is new wells adjacent to the Crooked River just southeast of Meadow Lakes golf course.  This transfer between aquifers will occur from November 1 through March 31, essentially the non-irrigation season.

The Bulletin mistakenly reported that the source of the recharge water is the Crooked River itself.  In fact, it is taken from wells recently drilled very close to the river which tap into alluvial deposits that are themselves recharged in the winter.  Water is being moved from one aquifer to another.  This will benefit Prineville’s municipal water supply and the data centers that use it, but there are associated environmental impacts.

In a healthy riparian ecosystem, wetlands and aquifers absorb water in wet periods which is later released, creating desirable habitat for fish and wildlife year round.  Unfortunately, wetlands have been drained and aquifers widely utilized in the Crooked River Basin for agricultural and municipal use.  As a result, the Crooked River has been on life support for decades.

Withdrawing water in the winter from aquifers near the river negatively impacts their natural hydrologic function.  The Bulletin’s article credits the ASR with recharging a single aquifer for municipal benefit, and states there has been no negative impact on agriculture, but does not consider environmental impacts.

In the summer, most of the Crooked River below Prineville is an ecological disaster with low flows, high temperatures, and significant levels of pollution.  Portions literally went dry last summer as spring chinook attempted to swim upriver to spawn.  In the winter, the Deschutes Basin Habitat Conservation Plan requires water to be released into the river from Prineville Reservoir, but at flows lower than necessary for healthy fish habitat according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and lower than called for in the 2014 Crooked River Act.

The City of Prineville will point out they have provided “mitigation” for their new wells.  The 2014 Crooked River Act allocated 5,100 acre-feet of water stored in Prineville Reservoir to be used as mitigation for more groundwater pumping.  Unfortunately, this mitigation water is part of the winter release required by the Habitat Conservation Plan.  To truly mitigate the impacts of Prineville’s new wells, the mitigation water should be released in the summer when flows below Prineville are lethally low and the natural aquifers along the river would be supplementing flows.

The area studied to determine feasibility of the ASR project is the plateau just west of Prineville that contains the airport, Facebook, and Apple. The study contained no discussion of impacts on wells outside the study area including existing Prineville municipal or private domestic wells or discussion of impacts on natural groundwater springs/seepage that feed the Crooked River downstream.

The bottom line is that data centers have provided economic benefits to Prineville, but they continue to be a drain on our environment.

* “Highly contained” means that water injected into the aquifer will not flow out due to surrounding impermeable geologic formations.