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Is Google a bad neighbor? A fight over water use at a huge data center is exposing deeper issues in an Oregon town

The Dalles, a town in Oregon, sits in an 80-mile-long gulch formally known as the Columbia River Gorge, but everyone here refers to it simply as the Gorge. Although it’s only 85 miles east of rainy Portland, The Dalles, population 16,000, lies on the dry side of the dividing line between wet western Oregon and the arid country of the east. Just 20 miles to the west, in the rain- and snow-shadow of the Cascade Mountains, moss and evergreens grow on the Gorge’s walls above the town of Hood River. Once a sawmill hub, Hood River now runs on tourism; downtown, you can find a Fjällräven boutique, a place for facials called the Hood River Skin Bar, and psychics who will tell your fortune and sell you your birthstone.

The Dalles, however, sits in a high desert. Although the Columbia runs right past it and is filled with more than a million salmon, The Dalles gets only 14 inches of precipitation a year. Two summers ago, the temperature reached 118 degrees. Little more than scrub brush grows around The Dalles, and the Gorge’s constant west wind blows tumbleweed up against the fence lines in the industrial district. In wintertime, everything here—the scrub brush, the ground it grows from, and the volcanic rock that forms the Gorge’s walls—are all the same dull matte brown color of stale gingerbread.

With a climate and a landscape unfit for tourism, as the 20th century became the 21st The Dalles found itself on the wrong side of more than just green and brown Oregon. Unlike Hood River, it was still stuck in the old economy. In 1958, Harvey Aluminum had built a huge smelter in The Dalles. Harvey became a serial polluter, but at its peak the smelter employed one in eight of the city’s adult population. Like so many American factories, however, the smelter began to falter in the 1980s. After several different owners, it closed for good in 2000. People remember those years here in negative superlatives.

“Our town was dying,” city council member Darcy Long says.

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“We were desperate,” Mayor Richard Mays says.

Then, in 2004, four years after the aluminum smelter finally closed and 199 years after Lewis and Clark first visited the region, a tall man in shorts and an untucked shirt arrived in town and said he was looking for a large industrial tract for his employer.

The agent, Chris Sacca, was circumspect from the start. He would say only that he worked for a company called Design LLC and that the company needed plenty of electricity and a connection to transcontinental fiber-optic cable. Design would generate hundreds of millions of dollars in one-time construction spending, Sacca told city officials, and the facility would produce hundreds of permanent jobs. Design was in a growing technological field, so expansions were likely.

The more local officials learned about the company’s plans, the more they believed Design represented The Dalles’ chance to exit the dirty industrial world and enter the clean, prosperous gates of the digital age. Of course, Design had a list of items it wanted in return for building in The Dalles. The company wanted property-tax breaks—15 years’ worth, an ask so big it would require the governor’s approval. In addition to power and internet connectivity, Design would also need lots of water to cool its facilities—in an arid country, another big ask. Finally, and perhaps above all, Design required total secrecy about the company’s plans.

The city met all of Design’s conditions, including signing a series of confidentiality agreements so strict that local officials didn’t feel comfortable uttering the name of the company behind Design even after the local newspaper had published it. Although Nolan Young left his job as The Dalles’ city manager eight years ago, he still must reassure himself it’s all right to say the name.

“I’d been trained for that word never to leave my lips,” he recalls. “In the back of my head I have, ‘Don’t say that,’ and I have to push through it because I’ve been conditioned not to say it.”

People in the Gorge began to call the new enterprise Voldemort Industries, after the villain in the Harry Potter series, also referred to as He Who Shall Not Be Named. Once the facility opened, you couldn’t find it on Google Maps, which was strange: The plant was as big as two football fields. The absence made sense, however, once you understood that the company behind Design was Google, which had chosen The Dalles to build its first-ever company-owned data center.

Nearly 20 years after Google came to town, there’s no question that economically speaking, the city is better off. The property-tax holiday on its initial data center has expired, and Google is the largest taxpayer in Wasco County, where The Dalles is located, by a factor of seven. "If they hadn’t come, I don’t even know what would have happened,” says Long, the city council member.

Photo of Darcy Long
City Council Woman Darcy Long photographed at The Dalle's City Hall on Court Street on May 10, 2023. Robbie McClaran for Fortune

It’s equally clear, however, that the city’s civic life has materially degraded since Google arrived. Google’s insular culture recently led to a series of events that people both in and out of town describe as “weird,” “troubling,” and “undemocratic.” When a newspaper reporter asked The Dalles for data about Google’s historical water usage, the city fought for more than a year to keep it secret. As for how much water this high-desert town has promised Google in the future, the city continues to refuse to make that information public.

The secrecy baffles many in the industry because many other tech companies that run data centers routinely share information about those facilities’ water needs. What’s more, Google has paid the town’s legal fees to suppress both its current and future water usage, something that experts in corporate/local government relations say they’ve never heard of before.

Such furtive behavior has also leached into the fabric of the town’s everyday life. People here say that while physically in The Dalles, Google is a distant and disconnected presence—in the town, but not of it. Local businesspeople say that with its own cafeteria and gym, Google produces little of the knock-on business that the smelter once did. Its local philanthropy, many say, is conducted in a rote, pro forma, and sometimes surreptitious way. Even the incremental business that Google does generate, people say, it generates bizarrely. When traveling contractors come to The Dalles to work on Google’s physical plant, they refer to the company with code names like OQ, TLK, and Project Triple 12.

Thus, while many people are happy that Google is here because of the tax money and the jobs it provides, they’re unhappy with how Google behaves. Harvey may have been a dirty employer, they say, but Google is a remote and haughty one.

“It’s a weird situation,” says Jerry Commander, a resident of The Dalles and a graduate of The Dalles High School’s class of 1963. “It’s like there’s a wall between us and them out there.”

The Dalles’ unusual topography makes it unique among American places. Where else can you find a million silver fish swimming in a huge blue river running through a dun-brown desert? At the same time, ever since the first human beings arrived here more than 10,000 years ago, The Dalles has mirrored the continent’s economic shifts. The region has functioned as a sort of petri dish, a place where we can observe how our economic culture has grown and changed.

Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark west in 1803 to explore “for the purposes of commerce,” but when they arrived in the Gorge two years later, they found that trade was already flourishing. Here, the mighty Columbia narrowed from 900 yards to less than 50, creating a series of dangerous and nearly unnavigable rapids; later, when the French fur trappers arrived, they called it Les Dalles, their term for a shallow, rocky channel. This chokepoint made it a natural gathering place, because whether going upstream or down, tribes had to stop and portage their canoes around the rapids. After the Cascades snowmelt subsided in late summer, oceangoing tribes from the Pacific traded their seashells in The Dalles with Plains people who had crossed the Bitterroot and Rocky Mountains on horseback to barter their buffalo pelts. As for the local Sahaptin and Chinookan peoples, their local medium of exchange was salmon, which gathered in such quantities at the base of the falls that the tribes dried and traded whatever they couldn’t eat. Sometimes they even burned dried salmon for fuel. In the high desert of central Oregon, salmon was more plentiful than firewood.

“This is the Great Mart of all this Country,” William Clark wrote in his journal in April 1806, and so it remained after European contact and the removal of tribes to reservations in less productive parts of the Northwest. After Lewis and Clark and the fur trappers came settlers on the Oregon Trail, and then came the sawmills, the steamboats, the fruit orchards, and the salmon canneries. In the late 19th century, the Union Pacific built a railroad along the Columbia, and in the 1940s, dams downriver at Bonneville and upriver at Grand Coulee powered the factories and shipyards that built the ships and planes that won World War II.

Whether conducted by canoe, steamboat, or hydroelectric dam, water has always powered the region’s economy. Because it’s so valuable in the high desert here, water has also been central to many of The Dalles’ most serious conflicts. Whiskey is for drinking, the saying goes in dry parts of the West, but water is for fighting. In 1957, the U.S. government built a dam just upriver from The Dalles, flooding Celilo Falls and the other ancestral fishing areas of the native tribes. Although it never had as dramatic a drop as Niagara, before the dam buried it underwater Celilo Falls was the nation’s biggest waterfall as measured by volume. More than 65 years after the event, the falls’ inundation remains so offensive to the region’s tribes that they can’t agree on whether to commemorate its place in their history. Twenty years ago, a nonprofit group commissioned Maya Lin to build seven installations along the Columbia River to explore the history of contact between native tribes and Europeans, but so far, the group has managed to build only six. The last one, planned for Celilo Falls, remains disputed. “Some people don’t want it,” says Antone Minthorn, a member of the Cayuse tribe who’s been involved with the project. “They think the damage was so bad that we should not honor it.”

The dam, however, did bring cheap hydropower to the region, which in turn drew Harvey Aluminum to The Dalles in 1958. Like most industrial operations, Harvey was hard on the environment. Shortly after the smelter opened, Harvey and the region’s cherry growers were pulling roughly three times more water from the city’s underground aquifer than normal precipitation could replace. The state declared The Dalles one of its first critical underground water areas, and the federal government had to intervene to stop the aquifer from being sucked dry. Later, cherry growers sued the smelter when fluoride coming from Harvey’s smokestacks damaged their orchards. Over time, the factory site became so polluted that in 1986 it was added to the Superfund list, the nation’s official roster of toxic waste sites.

The smelter, however, did employ a lot of people—more than 1,000 at its peak. Today, Google’s data centers in The Dalles employ only 200. The Fred Meyer supermarket and the local cherry growers’ cooperative both have more full-time workers here than Google does.

Tech’s failure to replace most of America’s manufacturing jobs is not Google’s fault, nor the fault of any tech company. It’s just the way the digital economy works. Tech’s products are zeros and ones, and very few people are required to run what amounts to a virtual world. Nobody makes anything in a data center; like tech in general, it’s capital intensive rather than labor intensive. Digitization, in fact, represents the most ruthless substitution of capital for labor the world has ever seen.

That was obvious from the beginning with Google and The Dalles. After Google’s first data center opened in 2006, it built another one next door in 2015 and a third in 2018, both of which received tax abatements that won’t expire until the next decade. Still, Google’s data centers are so valuable that even with only its original facility on the rolls, Google contributes an enormous amount to the local tax base. In 2022, Google paid $5.4 million in property taxes, seven times more than Union Pacific, the county’s second-largest taxpayer. When the tax breaks on Google’s expansions end in the 2030s, the company could be paying as much as a third of The Dalles’ current $90 million annual budget.

The jobs that Google’s data centers have produced are certainly cleaner than the smelter’s were—but like tech in general, they’re not as environmentally friendly as its leaders want us to believe. Although Alphabet, Google’s parent, routinely ranks near the top of American corporations on ESG metrics, data centers use about 2% of the nation’s electricity. That’s more than cryptocurrency miners use. Data centers also rank in the top 10 American industries in terms of water use, because without something to cool the thousands of computers, all the electronics would simply melt.

Researchers at Virginia Tech estimate that data centers consume 130 million cubic meters of water annually—less than steel mills and oil refineries but more than fertilizer or concrete manufacturers. These numbers are almost sure to grow exponentially, simply because our desire for computational capacity is growing exponentially. Artificial intelligence cannot run without data centers like Google’s in The Dalles, and an A.I. language-processing model built in 2020 uses 600,000 times more computing power than one built in 2012.

View this interactive chart on Fortune.com

Until Google began talks with the city on a third expansion, water availability had never been an issue. While it gets little rainfall, and while environmental laws forbid it from using the Columbia, The Dalles can access 10 million gallons of water a day through both its aquifers and in Cascade basin watersheds above the Gorge. About five years ago, however, Google began to talk with the city’s public works department about its increasing water needs. After conducting three studies, all of them paid for by Google, The Dalles determined that while its 10-million-gallon water supply was currently adequate, over time it might need as much as 17 million gallons a day.

Working with Google, officials at The Dalles devised a water and sewer infrastructure expansion plan which seems like a good deal for the city. Under it, Google will pay $28 million to upgrade the city’s water and sewer system and drill new wells so The Dalles can access unused aquifer water rights. Google also will give the city water rights it acquired when it bought part of the old Harvey Aluminum property. In return, The Dalles has committed to tap more water in its Cascade watersheds and inject the water into its aquifer during the snowmelt for the dry summer months. Overall, the plan will roughly double the city’s water capacity at almost no expense to The Dalles, officials say. There will be more than enough water for everyone, including Google.

Environmentalists and tribal groups worry about the effects of development along the Columbia and warn that the expansion could generally stress the ecosystem. “The problem is death by a thousand cuts,” says John DeVoe, senior advisor to WaterWatch, an Oregon conservation nonprofit. However, even critics of the water plan concede that it poses no imminent threat to the environment. Certainly, The Dalles region is far from where it was two generations ago, when the smelter and the cherry growers nearly sucked the local aquifer dry.

The plan itself, however, has never been the problem. The problem has been the fight to keep the key data secret.

The battle began innocuously enough. As the city council prepared to consider the water expansion plan in September 2021, a business reporter at the Oregonian named Mike Rogoway asked the city for Google’s water usage the previous year. That same day, city attorney Jonathan Kara denied the request. The information, he said, was exempt from Oregon’s public records law because it contained Google trade secrets that the city had promised to protect in confidentiality agreements it had signed with the company.

“I was quite surprised when the city said no,” Rogoway, who’s been covering technology in the state since 2004, recalls in an interview. “I’d asked about water use of Apple and Facebook in Prineville and Intel in Hillsboro and never had any problems.”

Several days later, the city council met to consider the infrastructure plan that its staff had negotiated with Google. Some found themselves in a very embarrassing and very public position: While city administrators knew how much water Google was using and how much the city had promised it in the future, some council members did not. On the last page of the 26-page water and sewer upgrade plan, city officials had blacked out Google’s maximum future call on the city’s water supply.

Some council members asked for the data at the meeting, but city attorney Kara made the same argument he had made about Google’s historical water data usage: It was a trade secret and protected from public view.

The politicians tabled the issue. “At this point, nobody has enough information to make any kind of decision,” council member Long said at the meeting. “We all deserve to know what’s in this agreement. That’s their job as a corporation, to look out for themselves. And we should be looking out for ourselves.”

Long tells Fortune that Kara later showed her the water-usage data, but only after she signed an individual nondisclosure agreement. The implication, she says, was that she would be personally liable if she made the figures public. Kara declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege, but Long says her impression was that the city attorney shared the information only after clearing it with Google. “It was definitely my understanding that this was with Google’s knowledge,” she says. “He wasn’t doing anything they didn’t know about.”

In November, the council met again, and this time, all members knew how much water The Dalles had committed to supply Google. Their constituents, however, did not: Some were upset about it. “As a homeowner in The Dalles and as a voter in a democracy, it seems incredible to me that you would have entered into a special agreement with Google to withhold their water usage because they want it held as a trade secret,” Christine Psyk wrote in an email to the council before the vote. “It’s extremely condescending and patronizing to take the stance that voters don’t have a right to know how a big company in their own town intends to use a public resource.”

Although some council members agreed with Psyk’s position, they unanimously passed the water expansion plan. “It would put a lot of our residents’ minds at ease” if Google disclosed the data, city council member Dan Richardson said at the meeting. “[But] the people that do need to know them do know them and feel pretty good about them.”

Steve and Cindy Nimmo at their business, Raindrop Laundry in The Dalles, Oregon. The couple says the complex has generated little incremental business for them. Robbie McClaran for Fortune
Steve and Cindy Nimmo at their business, Raindrop Laundry in The Dalles, Oregon. The couple says the complex has generated little incremental business for them. Robbie McClaran for Fortune

Meanwhile, Rogoway at the Oregonian pursued Google’s historical water usage. Following Oregon’s rather byzantine system to appeal the denial of its public-records request, the newspaper asked Wasco County district attorney Matthew Ellis to order The Dalles to make the data public. Shortly afterward, Ellis agreed with the paper that the data was not in fact a trade secret. “Nothing about water use gives away the design or actual use of the water, just the amount,” he wrote.

Experts Fortune interviewed agree with this line of reasoning. “There’s not a lot of engineering trade secrets in data centers,” one former data-center executive for a large cloud company says. “[Amazon’s] AWS and [Microsoft’s] Azure can pretty much figure out what Google’s doing just by inference and vice versa. There’s nothing really secret about them.” At its huge data center complex 80 miles east of The Dalles, Amazon, the market leader in cloud computing, hasn’t asked authorities to keep its water usage from public view. When Rogoway at the Oregonian asked local officials for Amazon’s water usage there, they quickly provided it to him.

The Dalles, however, fought the newspaper for more than a year over Google’s historical water figures. Then, in late 2022, it abruptly settled the lawsuit and agreed to divulge them. In an interview with Fortune, Mayor Mays says the city was prepared to keep fighting to keep the data from the public. It stopped, however, because Google told them to.

“It was out of the blue,” he recalls. “They said, ‘The hell with it.’”

Around this same time, Google published water usage for its 15 American data-center sites. A Google spokesperson said in an email that the company did so after concluding that its server-farm portfolio was diverse enough that publishing site-specific water data wouldn’t give away how much computing capacity each data center had. Other people, both in and out of town, believe it had more to do with the desire to end the bad publicity around The Dalles controversy, which had begun to be reported in the national media.

Whatever the reason, experts who study interactions between small towns and big corporations say that while the dealings between the two are often one-sided, the relationship between Google and The Dalles is unusually dysfunctional and lopsided.

“It really is one of the more egregious instances of corporations and public officials colluding to keep really important information about public resources away from the public,” says Pat Garofalo, director of state and local policy at the American Economic Liberties Project, which works to reduce corporate influence in politics and the economy. “Secrecy has been normalized to such an extent that corporations try to keep things hidden that are patently ridiculous.”

The city’s assertion that there will be plenty of water for everyone may be true, but it’s impossible to verify. Michelle Wilde Anderson, a law professor at Stanford University who specializes in legal issues involving smaller local governments, points out that Google paid for the studies on how much water the city could provide. The consultants who do these studies, she says, work regularly for Google but not for The Dalles. “They compete for Google’s business, but the town is a one-off,” Anderson says. “They have an incentive to tell Google what they want to hear on projections of both use and availability.”

If Google’s water-usage data were public, Anderson says, independent experts could study the plan in full detail, and the town’s citizens could trust their government. “You have to do these things with sunshine, not because Google is nefarious and the city council is incompetent,” she says, “but because water rights are incredibly valuable, and the town’s continued existence is incredibly important.”

Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that Google has been paying the city’s legal bills to keep the data from public view. As part of its confidentiality pacts with the city, Google has agreed to reimburse The Dalles for any legal expense it incurs to protect whatever Google asserts is a trade secret. To date, according to city attorney Kara, The Dalles has invoiced Google more than $215,000 for its legal bills.

Such an arrangement, experts tell Fortune, is unprecedented. “I’ve been on this issue since 2008 and I haven’t seen that happen elsewhere,” says Garofalo. “I’ve never seen this before, and it’s very weird and troubling to me,” says Anderson.

Meanwhile, The Dalles’ legal tab with Google remains open, because the key data point—Google’s maximum future call on the city’s water—remains secret. So far, the Oregonian has failed in its legal attempts to make The Dalles divulge those blacked-out figures in the city’s infrastructure upgrade plan.

Experts struggle to explain why Google has insisted that its water-usage data is a trade secret. Garofalo thinks Google wants to conceal the data to hide how wasteful it is. Anderson thinks that more information equals more debate, which equals more time, which Google can’t afford in its race to become a major cloud company.

Steve Lawrence, who was mayor of The Dalles from 2013 to 2019, has a more general explanation. “Here’s what I’ve experienced with Google,” he says. “They will try at every corner to not tell you what’s going on. I think it’s the Google mentality. They don’t want to tell anyone any more than they have to—and I think that comes from the top.”

I had come to The Dalles because I wanted to find a delta region, a place where the receding waters of the industrial economy were giving way to the fresh rush of the digital age. A friend who works at a major tech company told me that The Dalles was such a place. In The Dalles, he said, I could find people in flannel shirts driving pickup trucks next to tech bros in chinos driving BMWs.

This turned out to be untrue. During my time in town, I met city officials, lawyers, librarians, bartenders, grocery clerks, waiters, laundromat owners, and a former bareback horse and bull rider who now runs a gym—but I never met anyone who worked inside Google’s gates. Google didn’t allow me to tour the data center or interview its executives, and the spokesperson who responded to my questions did so only after I promised not to name her or quote her directly. Some of the local people I met gave me the names of a half dozen current and former Google employees, and I reached out to them by text or LinkedIn. But I never heard back from any of them.

Many people, even ones who’ve lived here since Google first came to town, get the same sense of eerie absence. When Steve Lawrence was mayor, Google asked him to sign a release before visiting the company cafeteria, and he never got close to the data center itself. Jerry and Loretta Commander moved to Alaska in the late 1960s so he could work on the pipelines there; they retired back to their hometown around the same time that Google opened its first facility. While they know plenty of people who work in Google’s food service, security, and maintenance operations, they know only one person who works in the actual data center—“and we get around,” Loretta says.

Part of this is simply math. Because Harvey Aluminum employed roughly five times more people than Google does, it was easier to know someone who worked at the smelter. It’s also about the precise composition of Google’s workforce: The Commanders don’t know many people who work inside the data centers themselves because not very many people work in them. Google designed the complex so that it could control the nerve center in The Dalles using software and engineers at its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif.

“It didn’t matter whether you have 500 or 500,000 computers—you could run them remotely,” Jim Reese, who oversaw Google’s initial data-center efforts, told Steven Levy for his book In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our LivesWe need physical hands only to get computers in place and replace the hard drives and motherboards when they fail. Even at the point where we had 50,000 computers, there were maybe six of us maintaining them.”

Because its product is metaphysical, perhaps it’s no coincidence that Google has a hard time relating to people in the actual, physical place it chose to build its first data center. Google, people in The Dalles say, handles the town the same way it handles its data: remotely, abstractly, in a way that feels only somewhat real and human.

The Commanders, for example, remember when Harvey Aluminum used to sponsor Little League teams in the summer and basketball teams in the winter. It had a float in every local parade, and when the Commanders graduated from The Dalles High School, the smelter threw a party for them as it did for every graduating class. The couple remember spending the night at the park inside the factory’s fence line, playing softball and miniature golf and swimming in the employee swimming pool. Harvey, they say, understood the importance of a public gesture, even ones that conveyed the company’s power in town. Once, when payday came, Harvey paid everyone in silver dollars so that people could see the smelter’s money circulating through The Dalles like so many salmon in the Columbia River.

Google’s leaders, the Commanders and others say, engage in none of this old-fashioned corporate signaling. There are no Little League sponsorships, no baseball caps, and none of the boosterism that Harvey Aluminum excelled at. As a result, Loretta Commander says, “it still feels like they’re some distant company instead of right here on the outside of town.”

Steve and Cindy Nimmo agree. While they can see the steam rising from Google’s cooling towers every morning at 6 a.m. when they open their Raindrop Laundry Service in a strip center on a little rise above the industrial district, the Nimmos say the complex has generated little incremental business for them. What bewilders the Nimmos more, however, is how the traveling electricians and welders behave when they visit Raindrop Laundry to clean their hot suits—fire-retardant coveralls and leggings that protect them from steam, chemicals, and electrical flashes. While Steve suspects that these contractors work for Google, they continue the long tradition of refusing to utter the company’s name.

“Usually they say, ‘Well, I work out at that place I’m not supposed to talk about,’” Nimmo says with a gentle shake of his head.

“Secrecy has been normalized to such an extent that corporations try to keep things hidden that are patently ridiculous.”

Pat Garofalo, director of state and local policy at the American Economic Liberties Project

Josh Molnar, who opened Muscle and Fitness Center on the corner of 8th Street and Garrison in 2005, has also seen little knock-on business from Google. He has also experienced secretive behavior from its itinerant contractors. As a former professional rodeo rider, however, he is franker than Nimmo about how he feels about it.

“They tell me things like, ‘I work for Project Triple 12,’” Molnar says. “I say, ‘Bullshit! Project Triple 12—you work for Google! Why don’t you just say it?’ It’s insulting. When a company comes in, especially a big company like Google, why would you hide what you’re doing? You’re supposed to be part of the community.”

The Google spokesperson says that using code names is standard practice in the construction industry. Business owners in Prineville, however, 115 miles south of The Dalles on the Columbia Plateau, say that the contractors who work at Facebook’s and Apple’s data centers in that town make no secret of it. Nimmo says that in The Dalles, Google is the only major company to use code names. “When mechanics on the wind turbines come in, they tell us they’re with GE or whoever,” he says. “That’s something we can put our finger on. But with Google…”

Such cloak-and-dagger behavior has led to all sorts of rumors about what Google's up to in town. Most of them are of the wild-eyed, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory variety: Google buses workers in daily from Portland. It flies them in by a jet that lands on the airstrip across the river in Washington. Google wants to buy up a good part of the city’s housing stock. While few people in The Dalles take these stories seriously, Lisa Commander, Jerry and Loretta’s daughter, argues that the rumors are a natural consequence of Google’s choice to shut itself off from the town.

Photo of Lisa Commander
Lisa Commander along East Second Street in The Dalles, Oregon on May 10, 2023. Robbie McClaran for Fortune

“It’s the classic game of telephone,” she says. “Because Google doesn’t communicate, someone hears something and passes it along, and you don’t know what to think.”

City leaders like former mayor Lawrence defend Google, saying that the company’s record of charitable giving is strong. “They’re really great partners here in town,” he says. But even his fellow politicians concede that Google’s philanthropy is so understated that instead of projecting modesty, the company instead projects aloofness. Darcy Long, the city council member, says that when she asked Google for some computers while doing work for a local nonprofit, Google donated them—but only on the condition that the group not tell anyone where they came from.

“I talked to some of the Google people about it, and it had to do with the whole corporate secrecy thing,” she says. “Maybe they thought everyone would ask them for computers if they knew we were getting some. I don’t know. I’m sure people ask for them anyway.”

Instead of Little League sponsorships and parade floats, Google publicizes its community engagement in a two-page brochure it publishes around the year-end holidays. If you squint hard, you can see white doves, Christmas wreaths, and blocky Stars of David. “As part of our commitment to the region, we’re excited to share that Google has contributed more than $1 million to nonprofits, schools and other organizations in Oregon, with a focus on Wasco County,” the brochure begins. It highlights charitable donations to help fight food insecurity; $100,000 for a water pilot project on Fifteenmile Creek, an important salmon and trout tributary; and the same amount to support “a service center for low-income families including those experiencing houselessnes [sic].”

The brochure itself is attractive, with many of the vaguely religious symbols deeply saturated in red and set against an equally saturated background of dark blue. But in my two weeks in The Dalles, I never saw a real copy circulating in a public place. I didn’t see one at the public library, for example, or at the post office or inside City Hall. Instead, a city official who wanted me to know about Google’s record of charitable giving emailed me the brochure as a PDF. Like most of the town, I experienced Google’s good works virtually rather than tangibly.

If you approach The Dalles through the Gorge from the east, you will be traveling the same route Lewis and Clark did when they first arrived here in the autumn of 1805, but you will encounter a very different landscape than they did. The tribes have all been moved away to reservations, and the narrows and the rapids that gave The Dalles its name have been submerged thanks to the more than 400 dams built in the Columbia River Basin. Today, the Columbia is so wide that it looks less like a river and more like a series of long and tranquil lakes; in wintertime, ice forms on the Columbia’s banks. The interstate and the railroad now parallel the river, and wind turbines, maintained by mechanics who drop their clothes at Raindrop Laundry Service, line the bluffs of the Gorge. The Gorge, the wind, and the gingerbread brown scrub brush, in fact, are likely the only phenomena that Lewis and Clark would recognize today.

They certainly would not recognize Google’s dull, anonymous buildings in The Dalles’ industrial district. Water vapor from their cooling towers evaporates into the evening sky, creating what Google’s website calls “a quiet mist at dusk.” If it weren’t for the tumbleweed against the fence line and the Gorge rising up along both sides of the river, the data centers could be an auto-parts plant in Kokomo, Ind., or a slaughterhouse in St. Joseph, Mo. But nobody is making or killing anything inside Google’s data centers. They are giant, modern granaries. They store the stuff of our lives and send it back to us at two-thirds the speed of light whenever we want it.

When big factories came to town in the industrial era, their domination was overt. Two hundred miles northeast of The Dalles, in Washington, DuPont built a dynamite plant in 1908 on old Nisqually tribal lands. The company then built homes, a butcher shop, a hotel, a playground, a school, and a church around it. The factory operated until 1975 and produced more than 1 billion pounds of explosives. Naturally, the town was named DuPont.

Since it came to The Dalles, Google has behaved in almost the exact opposite way. It quite literally didn’t want to be on the map. At the same time, it wants a lot more water to cool its servers. How much, only a few people know.

“The underlying thread of this whole saga is that very few people have access to the details—just a couple people, a handful of people,” says Long. “We’ve been all aware of big corporations screwing the little guy, and when you’re worried something doesn’t smell right and you can’t get the data, of course people push back. ‘Trust me’ is not a great response.”

Lisa Commander agrees.

“It’s almost,” she says, “like we’re becoming a stealth company town.”

Now a money manager, Adam Seessel won the George Polk Award for environmental reporting in 1991. His firm owns shares of Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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