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Why one reporter wants to know how much water the NSA is using

The NSA’s Utah Data Center in Bluffdale, Utah. (Rick Bowmer/AP)

UPDATE: In a new letter to the State Records Committee, the NSA argues that water usage could be used to determine computing power, which in turn could be used to assess how much data is being collected at the facility.

About a 30-minute drive south of Salt Lake City,  the National Security Agency is building what will be its largest data center, a sprawling $1.5 billion, million-square-foot building.

It’s reportedly the capstone to a massive spy network and “a project of immense secrecy,” reporter James Bamford wrote in a 2012 article for Wired magazine. National and local reporters have been closely watching its progress since breaking ground in 2011 and, on Wednesday, The Salt Like Tribune will press the state to find out more.

But the issue at hand isn’t the NSA’s thirst for data. The Tribune’s military and national security reporter Nate Carlisle will go before Utah’s State Records Committee and ask it to order Bluffdale City to disclose records showing how much water the data center uses.

We spoke with Carlisle on Thursday to find out more and here’s an edited version of that conversation.

Q: What are you guys hoping to find out here?

Nate Carlisle: It’s very simple. We just want to know how much water the Utah data Center is using. That’s it.

Q: Why?

NC: First and foremost, we’re the second most arid state in the country, and, at one point, it was projected by the Army Corps of Engineers that the UDC would use 1.7 million gallons of water per day. Bluffdale City Council minutes [from 2010] indicate that was downgraded to about 1.2 million gallons a day, but then we’ve also heard that even though it was supposed to be operational in the fall, it’s not using nearly that much water. However much it’s using, there’s still a public interest in tracking that water usage.

The other  issue is Bluffdale made a deal with the NSA, gave them a discounted rate on the water and used that to help finance about $3 million of infrastructure to deliver water to that area of Bluffdale. So we think taxpayers have multiple interests here in tracking that water usage and how much revenue Bluffdale’s receiving from the NSA.

Q: What’s the response been to your requests so far?

NC: You see it in the appeal letter. First of all, Bluffdale is arguing that the NSA doesn’t want this released, and there is a provision in Utah law that says if the federal government gives you records, and they certify that these records will not be subject to a federal Freedom of Information Act request, then the state government doesn’t have to release them either. However, my argument to that is that these were never the NSA’s records, these were records generated by Bluffdale.

The other thing that Bluffdale argues is that disclosing the water records constituted a security threat to the data center and government programs. In short, I argue against that on the merits.

Q: They haven’t made clear why knowing the amount of water usage constitutes a security threat?

NC: The only thing I had heard is a vague claim that that would discern the computing capacity of the Utah data center, but I point out a lot of problems with that in the appeal.

Q: What does the data center look like?

NC: It looks like a very large Dunder-Mifflin. It’s a really nondescript building. If it wasn’t very large and sitting among the shrub-grass and brown dirt of Utah, you wouldn’t think anything of it, other than its size.

Q: So what’s next?

NC: Each side will make an argument, and the committee could rule right then one way or the other, they could decide they want to deliberate and announce at the next meeting which would be a month away, in April. But whenever they make a decision, the clock starts ticking. You have 30 days for basically the loser to file a lawsuit in state district court and appeal the committee’s decision that way.

Q: Do you know if anyone has tried to find out similar information about other data centers?

NC: The other data centers are sitting on military installations like in the middle of army posts, air force bases, etc. I assume that the water is sold to that army post or air force base and starts becoming indiscernible once it’s distributed from there.

We’ve got an air force base here north of Salt Lake City, Hill Air Force Base, and that’s the way I presume it works there. Hill Air Force Base probably buys its water from the same water district everyone else in that county gets it, and the bill just goes to Hill Air Force Base. I don’t know if that means it goes to the 388 fighter wing or if it’s going to the 22nd logistics unit, etc.

Q: Can you give me a little context on why water’s an issue out there?

NC: We’re not as bad as California right now, but we’re growing at a faster rate than California, and like I said we’re the second most arid state in the country. We’ve got less water than California. And 1.2 million gallons a day, I don’t even know how many houses that is in Utah, but it’s a lot.

Niraj Chokshi is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.

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