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Facebook data center water use scrutinized

From left, Valencia County residents Michael Gonzales and Wanda Leyba-Gonzales, Valencia Water Watch organizer Deirdra Velazquez, and Belen farmers Jason Schilberg and Amelia Vogel protest a Facebook data center expansion that they say would strain the local water supply. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

The proposed expansion of the Facebook data center in Los Lunas has prompted community concerns about water use competing with local farms and businesses.

The Los Lunas Village Council last week unanimously approved the issuance and sale of up to six series of industrial revenue bonds totaling $40 billion for Facebook subsidiary Greater Kudu, LLC. The bonds will help finance the data center expansion of six new buildings, which would double its size.

Valencia County farmers lead the way in tractors as they drive to the Village of Los Lunas offices Thursday in protest of water use at the Facebook data center.

Village attorney Jill Sweeney said the site expansion will not change the company’s October 2016 water services agreement.

The data center has access to up to 500 acre-feet, or about 163 million gallons, of consumptive water rights through that agreement.

Data centers use water to cool servers and other equipment, and to maintain humidity levels in a desert environment.

“Currently, the maximum one-day demand availability is 1.5 million gallons,” Sweeney said. “However, Greater Kudu LLC’s typical average day demand for 2020 was 153,000 gallons. The data center uses 80% less water than the average data center, and restores more water annually in the Rio Grande watershed than it consumes.”

The council cited company water use data to conclude that even a large expansion of the facility supported by the bonds would not exceed the center’s allotted water use.

“About 180 acre-feet of water is what Facebook uses currently, and that’s about 5% of our total capacity water use, so it’s not a huge amount,” Councilor Phillip Jaramillo said. “The Corrections Department uses almost that amount of water as well. It’s not that much for our system, but of course, any bit of water’s important.”

Before Thursday’s council vote, about 50 Valencia County farmers and residents protested the expansion plans with a vehicle caravan to the Los Lunas village administration offices.

They carried signs saying “Water for peoples’ needs, not corporate greed,” and “Stop sucking Valencia County dry.”

Deirdra Velazquez, a member of Valencia Water Watch, said the community organization has not confirmed Facebook’s claims about efficient water and energy use at its data center campus.

“We’re not anti-Facebook,” Velazquez said. “But the village has been doling out our water to different corporations. It’s time they realize the people in this community, the backbone of this community, need to have a say in what’s going on with the water.”

In February, Niagara Bottling Co. withdrew an application with the Village of Los Lunas to expand its water use after outcry from farmers and residents, including some who attended Thursday’s protest.

Patricia Gillian shows her support for Valencia County farmers as they drive on Main Street in Los Lunas on Thursday to protest the village’s helping to finance a Facebook Data Center expansion that they say would leave less water for agriculture. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Los Lunas pumps water from the aquifer at five wells near the Rio Grande for its municipal supply.

Agriculture uses the biggest share of New Mexico’s water. The Office of the State Engineer estimates irrigated agricultural water use accounts for 76% of the state’s total withdrawals.

The extended drought and a large water delivery debt to southern New Mexico and Texas has prompted severe water shortages and irrigation restrictions for area farmers.

The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District delayed the start of the irrigation season until April 1.

State water managers advised farmers who do not absolutely have to farm to abstain this year, as water along the Rio Grande will likely be in short supply.

Another business demanding water is a concern for farmers like Leroy Baca, whose family has grown alfalfa, oats and sorghum wheat in Tomé for several generations.

“This year, I’ll probably only get one cut of oats,” Baca said. “Farming is our traditional way of life, but if you don’t have an expensive attorney like some of these companies, it’s difficult to maintain those water rights.”

Facebook funding has enabled the conservation group Audubon Southwest to lease and release water into the Rio Grande to benefit wildlife habitat.

In 2018, the organization used the social media company’s funding to release about 32 million gallons into the river.

In 2020, the company helped fund a 65 million-gallon release.

Los Lunas farmer Janet Jarrett and her dog, Rigel, in the cab of her tractor as she and other farmers prepare to drive to the Village of Los Lunas offices in protest of the Village Council’s approval of industrial revenue bonds for a Facebook data center expansion. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The entities have agreed to work together on supplementing river flows through the year 2027.

Tax breaks and increased water allotments should be directed to the county’s small farmers and businesses instead of large corporations, said Alejandría Lyons, a SWOP environmental justice organizer and native of Los Lunas.

“We want to make sure there’s water for our small farms,” she said. “We want to have people who grow chile and local food.”

Economic development groups tout the data center expansion for its local job creation.

The center has 100 full-time employees and 200 contract employees. The planned expansion would create at least 30 more full-time jobs and hundreds of construction jobs.

Melinda Allen, president and CEO of New Mexico Partnership, said the bonds and resulting expansion could help diversify the local and state economy.

“By creating these clusters of technical jobs and projects, it allows New Mexico to leverage these assets to recruit additional high-tech related businesses and projects to the state,” Allen said.

Theresa Davis is a Report for America corps member covering water and the environment for the Albuquerque Journal.

Editor’s Note: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the monetary amount of the six industrial revenue bonds. 


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