Updates: Following the settlement reached between The Oregonian and the city of The Dalles, a Google spokesperson told the Associated Press that the tech company would no longer seek to protect its site-level water-use numbers as a trade secret at any of its data centers nationwide. And after the city turned over Google’s water-use data, The Oregonian reported that the tech company’s water use “nearly tripled in the past five years, and the company’s data centers now consume more than a quarter of all the water used in the city.”
A city in northern Oregon has agreed to disclose records showing how much water Google uses to cool its local data centers, bringing to a close a year-long legal dispute that began when the city sued The Oregonian/OregonLive to shield data about its largest water user.
Under the terms of a settlement agreement reached between the city of The Dalles and The Oregonian this week, city officials will turn over records showing the tech giant’s local annual water usage from 2012-2021. The city also agreed to disclose similar information for future years if it receives public records requests for water-use data.
“The information itself is of the highest public interest,” Ellen Osoinach, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press Local Legal Initiative attorney for Oregon, told The Oregonian, which she represented in the case.
“This is a limited, communal resource and the West is in a drought,” Osoinach added. “There are data centers all over the country and right here in Oregon, and the amount of water they consume is something that’s incredibly important to all water users.”
The Oregonian first requested records about Google’s water usage in The Dalles last September. But city officials denied the request submitted by business reporter Mike Rogoway, arguing that the records are “trade secrets” exempt from disclosure under the Oregon Public Records Law.
The newspaper decided to challenge the city’s denial, asking the district attorney for Wasco County to weigh in. After reviewing the city’s rejection, the district attorney sided with The Oregonian, concluding that the city failed to meet its burden to show that Google’s water usage is a trade secret and ordering the city to disclose the requested records.
The district attorney’s decision, however, didn’t end the dispute. Instead of turning over the records, the city filed what’s known as a reverse public records lawsuit against Rogoway and The Oregonian seeking to prevent the release of information about Google’s local water usage.
Osoinach began representing Rogoway and The Oregonian last October.
In an interview with The Oregonian, the mayor of The Dalles said the city fought to protect the information because Google, which had agreed to pay the city’s legal bills, “was concerned about competitors knowing how they cool their servers.” But as The Oregonian reported, Google later changed its mind about shielding the information, prompting the city to consider settlement negotiations with the newspaper.
In November, The Dalles City Council authorized the city to settle the lawsuit. And this week, both parties finalized the terms of the agreement. As part of the settlement, the city will pay the Reporters Committee’s legal fees for representing The Oregonian.