Less than a year ago, Mesa City Council approved a development and water agreement for a large data center with a mysterious Delaware-based company called Redale LLC.
That company turned out to be Facebook.
Under its May 2021 development agreement with Mesa, Facebook would build a 1- million-square-foot facility in a first phase, with the option to build another 2 million square feet in subsequent phases.
One of the conditions was Facebook, now Meta, had to get started within five years.
Less than a year later, it’s far outstripped that time frame: the first 1 million square feet are well underway, and Meta announced last week that it’s decided to use the rest of its option and build another 1.5 million square feet.
In a release, Meta said it plans three more “data halls” at its Elliot Road Tech Corridor campus, in addition to the two already under construction, for a total of 2.5 million square feet.
The expansion means the area south of Elliot Road will be a small village of up to 2,000 construction workers on site for the next four years, DPR Construction manager Joe Yeargan said.
As big as the expansion is, even when all five planned mega-buildings are completed, Facebook’s data campus will only take up the upper portion of the 390-acre parcel the company owns at Elliot and Ellsworth.
Much of the lower part of the site will still be available for expansion, though the company would have to go through Mesa’s development process again for additional phases.
Asked what the future might hold for the rest of the parcel, Meta spokeswoman Melanie Roe said more data centers were possible, adding, “all of our expansions are based on business need.”
Meta held a May 4 event at the site to announce the expansion, which was attended by officials from Meta, city officials, Salt River Project representatives and other partners – as well as many workers donning hard hats and vests.
Mayor John Giles told the crowd that “Mesa’s an incredible place to set up a shop” and praised Meta for locating in the city.
“They’ll create high quality jobs” and “companies will locate here because Meta is here,” he said.
The mood under the tent was jovial, but the issue of water loomed over the proceedings.
Just the day before, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced that it would be taking extraordinary measures to protect the water levels in Lake Powell and other Colorado River reservoirs due to extended drought and a disappointing winter of precipitation in the Rockies, which feeds the river.
Many of the speakers celebrating Meta’s expansion touched on water conservation.
“We know water’s a concern and it’s something we take very seriously,” Meta Community Development David Williams told the crowd.
Meta’s Mesa data centers will use significant amounts of water to cool its servers, and in announcing the expansion, Meta did not avoid the water issue, stating that its data centers will be 60% more water efficient than the industry average, and declaring that it is “committed to restoring more water than it will consume.”
As part of its water agreement with the city, Meta will purchase water credits and sign them over to the city of Mesa before hooking up to the municipal system.
But offsetting its water use is a lofty goal, and Meta did not have specifics yet on how it would achieve it.
Because of the large scale of the planned data centers and the amount of energy its servers will consume – up to 450 megawatts, comparable to a medium city’s entire household use – the water demands to cool equipment are potentially large.
In a Sustainable Water Service agreement with the city, Meta and the city estimated the project at full build out of five buildings might use 1,400 acre feet of water per year. The maximum flow rates in the agreement suggest the scale of the water needed, up to 4 million gallons of water per day.
A typical 18-hole golf course in Arizona uses between 500,000 and 1 million gallons of water per day.
Besides touting the efficiency of its facilities’ design, Meta also sought to head off questions about water by highlighting its donations to water conservation projects in Arizona, which could result in more water reaching the Valley.
Dan Stellar, the Arizona director of The Nature Conservancy, described a Meta-supported irrigation improvement project outside Sedona that might increase water flows in Oak Creek – a tributary of the Verde River that is important for Valley water supplies.
Meta reported that three projects it is supporting could conserve 200 million gallons of water per year. This is a lot, but it represents a 50-day supply for the data centers at the maximum allowed flowage.
Last year, Vice Mayor Jenn Duff cast the lone vote against the development agreement on the grounds that the risk of adding such a large water user to the system was not outweighed by the number of permanent jobs created by the project.
Duff was at the Meta event with Mayor John Giles and three other council members. She told the Tribune before the speeches that she hoped the data centers would figure out a way to cool the centers without water.
Another theme of Wednesday’s events was jobs, both temporary construction jobs and permanent jobs. Facebook says the data centers will create 200 permanent jobs when the project is complete.
Visitors had an opportunity to view current construction, and there were plenty of workers attending to various tasks and driving around the huge parcel in side-by-sides.
At the site of Building 1, a crew worked below ground level in a labyrinth of concrete and tubing that will eventually house electrical wires and fiber cabling. Yeargan wanted the guests in attendance to appreciate how far down below the surface the crews were putting infrastructure in.
Nearby, two lofty cranes lifted metal girders into place to form the skeleton of the first building.
Yeargan said DPR was working hard to be a good neighbor while construction is underway and reduce truck traffic on Elliot Road. Vendors have set up essentially temporary hardware stores and equipment rental shops on-site, so workers can access materials without leaving the site. DPR is also preparing all its concrete on location.
For Yeargan, one of the benefits of the recently announced expansion is that it means craft workers can stay with a single site for many years. He said the Meta project would be a good place for recent grads in the trades to start out, because they could get “four years of continuous apprenticeship” at the site.
To underscore its investment in local employment, Meta also announced a $50,000 gift to the Mesa College Promise fund, which provides Mesa high school grads two years of free tuition to Mesa Community College.
As he prepared to board the bus again after viewing the Building 1 site, Freeman shared his thoughts on the project and expansion.
“I’m excited about this,” he said.
“One of the guys said it creates a ‘tertiary technology ripple effect.’ I was impressed by that because wherever they’ve built these developments, it has changed a
lot of the area for the better. Employment, economic development, housing and their support of education, and the commitment for water conservation is key to me.”