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NSA Tries To Keep Its Water Use A Secret, But Drought-Stricken Utah Isn’t Buying It

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"NSA Tries To Keep Its Water Use A Secret, But Drought-Stricken Utah Isn’t Buying It"

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The  cooling units at the NSA's billion-dollar data center in Bluffdale, Utah.

The cooling units at the NSA’s billion-dollar data center in Bluffdale, Utah.

CREDIT: AP – Rick Bowmer

The Utah state records committee ordered the city of Bluffdale Wednesday to release records of the National Security Agency’s water use for its controversial data center, despite protests from the NSA that the information should be classified because of national security.

The city redacted specific figures on the NSA’s water usage last year in response to a Salt Lake Tribune public records request. Estimates have ballparked the water usage of the agency’s new Bluffdale facility around 1.2 to 1.7 million gallons every day to cool an approximate 100,000 square feet of computer equipment.

The NSA says it redacted the documents requested by the Tribune because they could reveal the breadth of the agency’s controversial surveillance program. Because that water is used to cool servers, the more water the building uses, the more computing power the agency has.

Bluffdale is giving the NSA a massive discount on its utilities, allowing the facility to use essentially as much water as it wants without facing higher rates. Meanwhile, Utah is facing one of the worst droughts in recent history. The vast majority of the state is in a moderate drought or at least abnormally dry, and water reservoir levels are below normal for the third year in a row.

Even with recent rainfall, Utah is on track for a repeat of last year’s drought that lasted through the summer. Last year, many cities implemented water conservation measures with stiff fines to keep residents and businesses from wasting water on lawns. The drought has also taken a toll on farmers who on water reservoirs to grow thirsty crops such as fruits and vegetables. With reservoirs still nearing a two-decade low, some farmers have even considered switching their crops to grains, which need less water.

Data centers in general consume a lot of water. Microsoft’s San Antonio data center uses 8 million gallons of water each month. Research shows that hydro-cooling systems are expensive and, used alone, aren’t always the best way to cool data systems. Moreover, water usage only loosely estimates a facility’s data computing power.

Facebook, Google and eBay have all taken steps to making theirs as energy- and water-efficient as possible. Both Facebook and Google use recycled water to cool their servers. Facebook’s Oregon facility uses a customized cooling system that recycles water found in the air and keep water use levels low, while Google’s centers use waste water or sea water.

The NSA may have to start getting creative if state legislators get their way. In protest of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden’s leaks that revealed the agency’s phone and email surveillance programs, Utah lawmakers are threatening to cut off the center’s water and cripple the NSA’s operations. In February, a state Republican lawmaker promised to introduce a bill that would bar anyone in the state from supplying water to the $1.5 billion facility.

Thirteen states have taken up similar bills to limit the NSA’s presence by cutting off access to vital resources. Maryland lawmakers set out to cut off the electricity and water to the NSA’s headquarters in Ft. Meade, Maryland. There, the NSA’s water bill was estimated to hit $2 million a year for 5 million gallons of water a day.

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