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Apple is now Prineville’s top water user

By Dylan J. Darling / The Bulletin
Published Nov 15, 2015 at 12:01AM

PRINEVILLE — Historically, city officials said, Prineville’s economy was centered around two “T’s:” timber from the mills, and tires, due to the presence of Les Schwab Tire Centers. The passage of Senate Bill 611, which removed a property tax provision for Internet providers, will allow the community to continue expanding its third “T:” technology, in the form of data centers from Apple and Facebook. State and local officials gathered Tuesday to celebrate the bill’s passage

Woodgrain Millwork is closing the last of its operations in Prineville, a move that means layoffs or relocation for the remaining 55 employees, a company executive announced today. “Unfortunately, due to the recent loss of significant sales volume, the operation is no longer financially viable and will be closed in the next few months,” wrote Greg Easton, vice president of Woodgrain’s millwork division, in an announcement dated Thursday. Easton wrote that the Idaho-based company provided

Prineville was once a bustling mill town, boasting five sawmills. Times have changed. The big sawmills are all gone now, and the secondary product industry that has carried on — making doors, window frames and other wood products — just took a major blow. After a roof collapsed Nov. 14, Woodgrain Millwork laid off 130 workers, with 85 more jobs set to be gone by the end of the year. “We are losing our mill-town

Another sign of Prineville’s conversion from a timber town to a digital city: data centers are overtaking wood-product manufacturers as the top water users.

“Woodgrain (Millwork) used to always be our top user, and now it’s Apple, so things change,” said Eric Klann, city of Prineville engineer.

Following a roof collapse caused by heavy snowfall in November 2014, Woodgrain Millwork laid off more than 200 workers and last month decided it would completely close down by the end of January .

It will lay off or relocate its remaining 55 employees in Prineville.

Meanwhile Apple has continued to build out its data center and used increasing amounts of water for construction and to keep the computers inside cool, Klann said.

When Woodgrain held the crown of top water user in Prineville last year , it used 8.3 million gallons of city water.

Getting exact figures for Apple’s water use is murky because of a faulty meter at the data center. It had been reading only one-tenth of the water being used until city officials discovered the problem in August.

That month, the city made up for a couple years of unmetered water use by adding it to Apple’s tab, bringing this year’s total to more than 23 million gallons as of Sept. 30.

Klann said Apple’s growth this year has pushed it to being the biggest water user supplied by Prineville. It took the No. 1 spot before the error was detected.

Apple is not the only big name with a data center in Prineville. Facebook opened the town’s first data center in 2011, finished a second at the end of 2013 and in September announced plans for a third, which is now under construction. Relying on its own wells, Facebook does not use as much city water as Apple, but it does use plenty of water overall.

Facebook has drawn its own groundwater since 2011, according to the Oregon Department of Water Resources. In 2014, the company used a combined 10.5 million gallons of water — 1.3 million gallons from the city and 9.2 million gallons from its wells.

The Apple and Facebook data centers are absolutely worth the water use, said Crook County Judge Mike McCabe, the top-elected official in the county. He said initial talks with Facebook projected the company using much more water than it is now.

“It’s less than they even thought,” he said.

Comparing water usage

To make the millions of gallons of water used by data centers understandable, Kyle Gorman, region manager for the state Water Resources Department in Bend, compared them with other water users in Central Oregon.

An average 18-hole golf course, on about 120 acres, uses around 1 million gallons of water a day in summertime. One average acre of irrigated farmland uses about 10,000 gallons per day.

While they’re significant water users, Gorman said, data centers “are small in comparison to a several hundred-acre farm.”

City of Prineville water user data offers more perspective. The Best Western hotel used more than 3.9 million gallons of water in 2014. The old Pioneer Memorial Hospital, replaced this September by St. Charles Prineville, used more than 4.6 million gallons, and Les Schwab Tire Centers, which has a distribution center in Prineville, used more than 5.8 million gallons.

The city of Prineville supplies about 600 million gallons of waters to all of its customers combined, Klann said, with all the water coming from wells.

Water for cooling

Holding the data that makes up family photos, party invites and dog videos for Facebook’s 1 billion-plus users takes high-powered servers. The Facebook data centers in Prineville are home to tens of thousands of them, Lee Weinstein, a Facebook spokesman, wrote in response to questions from The Bulletin.

All those servers create heat, like a laptop or desktop computer. To keep the computers cool, data centers use water to condition the air.

“Most data centers use a significant amount of water for cooling,” Weinstein wrote. “In the data centers (Facebook owns), we designed out the need for traditional cooling systems by pulling cool air in from the outside and blowing warm air out. If the outside air is too warm, then we use efficient water evaporation technology to suck the heat out of the air we’re pulling in.”

An Apple spokeswoman did not go into details about how the company cools it data center.

Klann said Apple is still building out its data center, so much of the water it is using may be going to construction. When it comes to cooling a data center, most of the water can be recycled and ends up being evaporated. What water is left goes to the city sewer system.

Changing face of Prineville

Apple and Facebook represent the new notion of Prineville, the Crook County seat once known for logging and lumber. The town used to have five sawmills. The big sawmills are gone, and while the secondary wood product industry has continued, it has also declined in recent years.

Enter the data centers. Drawn to Central Oregon by the climate, tax breaks and lack of a sales tax, data centers have replaced lumber mills as the noteworthy industry for Prineville.

Facebook is growing. Apple may be growing more soon, too, having bought 200 acres in late September from Crook County for $3.6 million.

Close monitoring

Whether the data centers are using water from the city of Prineville or their own wells, they are drawing from the same aquifer. The underground reservoir is an old riverbed of the Crooked River, long ago covered over by lava, and stretches under the Prineville Airport, Klann said.

Given the growing demands of data centers, the city is watching the level of the aquifer more closely nowadays, he said, with monitors at more than three dozen wells.

“We have gathered a ton of information on that aquifer because we want to make sure that it is going to be there not just now,” Klann said, “but 40 years from now.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7812, ddarling@bendbulletin.com


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