UMATILLA — The tiny city of Umatilla and the internet giant Amazon have come up with a unique use for the cooling water from the company’s massive server farms.
They are using it irrigate the region’s other farms — the kind that grow crops.
Perched along the Columbia River in northeast Oregon, Umatilla is a haven for irrigated agriculture where farmers grow everything from hay and wheat to high-value potatoes, onions, carrots and melons.
In 2009, Amazon broke ground on its first campus of data centers in Umatilla. Data centers are large warehouses filled with computer servers. All the information gathered by websites like Amazon and Facebook is stored in the server farms.
Amazon was attracted to the Columbia Basin, in part, by the availability of clean water that could be used in cooling systems for all those servers. A single data center consumes between 250,000 and 1 million gallons of water per day in the warmer summer months, when outside temperatures can top 100 degrees.
That water is still mostly clean once it comes out the other end, said Umatilla city manager Dave Stockdale.
With two data center campuses now online and another two being built, Stockdale said it didn’t make sense, nor was there capacity, to treat all that mostly clean water at the city’s sewer plant.
Both the city and Amazon began pondering ways they could reuse the water, adding benefit for the community.
The answer, they decided, was to deliver the water to the same farmers that have powered Umatilla’s economy for decades.
“To take this new age technology and sort of marry it to our traditional roots, especially in Umatilla which has always been an agricultural community ... in reality, they actually worked out in a great symbiotic relationship,” Stockdale said.
The cooling water from Amazon is piped to an irrigation canal run by the West Extension Irrigation District, which serves 10,400 acres of farmland.
The project broke ground in 2019, with roughly 7 miles of pipe that run from the data center campuses to a new headworks on the district’s canal at the northeast end of the city.
From there, the water flows about 1,200 feet allowing it to mix with the district’s water pumped directly from the Columbia River, diluting any excess salts and reaching a suitable pH level before it can be used for irrigation.
Stockdale said the infrastructure cost a little more than $5 million. So far, Amazon is the only customer on the new system, though that could change with future developments.
Water deliveries began in 2020. This year, Stockdale estimated they provided enough water for farmers to grow an additional 1,000 acres of crops, all with existing water rights.
“Technically, it’s the city’s water in the irrigation district’s canal,” Stockdale said. “If a farmer wants access to additional water, they have additional water capacity available to them through this system.”
The value of agriculture in arid Eastern Oregon grows exponentially with water.
Dryland wheat grown without irrigation yields roughly $100 per acre. Adding 1 acre-foot of water increases the crop’s value to $500 per acre. Add 3 acre-feet of water, and farms can earn up to $5,000 per acre growing higher value specialty crops.
An acre-foot covers an area about the size of a football field with 1 foot of water, or about 325,851 gallons.
As more data centers come online in the coming years, Stockdale said the city is examining other potential uses for the water in addition to irrigation, such as repairing wetlands in the area for wildlife.
“We continue to look at ways to be good environmental stewards of our resources,” Stockdale said.
A spokesperson for Amazon Web Services said the project is the first of its kind in Oregon and for the company, and the goal is to increase water reuse at its northeast Oregon data centers to 100%.