Amazon Web Services is building a big new data centre on a west Auckland site where this man-made pond previously provided habitat to nesting NZ dabchicks. Photo: Aurecon

Auckland Council reveals it has processed two resource consents for Amazon Web Services to clear 3.9 hectares of land for a big data centre overlooking the new Costco and Westgate shopping centre.

The site preparation works include the drainage of two small artificial wetlands. That is being followed by bulk earthworks for the development of the new data centre there.

Amazon Web Services has refused to disclose the location of its three cloud clusters around Auckland, citing security. But it was legally required to disclose its plans to the council, to obtain resource consents.

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It’s dubbed Project Wētā. And according to an assessment of the effects on the environment, prepared for Amazon by engineering firm Aurecon, the tech firm wants to do earthworks, discharge contaminants from the soil, and exceed noise limits.

The resource consent application was first lodged in March 2020 by infrastructure consulting firm AECOM, on behalf of Amazon Data Services NZ Ltd, a sister company of Amazon Web Services. It sought to drain and reclaim two wetland features – it expected to begin “dewatering” the main pond before Christmas.

A further resource consent application must be made for stage two – the main development works.

Aurecon’s report says the site contains a large man-made pond with several patches of trees and vegetation, and some small artificial waterways that are remnants of a previous goldfish breeding pond.

These are not natural wetlands, so they’re not protected by the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. No immediate concerns were raised by conservation groups shown the environment report by Newsroom.

Indigenous ‘at risk’ copper skinks have recently been found within 650m of the site, but not on Amazon’s property.

Of greater concern, a breeding pair of the “very high value” aquatic New Zealand dabchick species was observed at the pond, and was reconfirmed with a nest and eggs during a site assessment. “The dabchicks are not expected to be present onsite once the pond has been remediated and vegetation cleared,” the report says.

Dabchick nesting season finished last week – freeing up Amazon to complete its earthworks.

“The proposal will have positive effects on the environment as it will prepare the site for future development and will create positive economic effects for the local area in terms of employment opportunity.”
– Aurecon report

Signing off the resource consents, the council notes that dabchicks have a conservation status of “At Risk – Recovering”. Amazon had provided suitable dabchick management measures to avoid fatality or injury, it says. “There are many nearby waterbodies that will continue to facilitate dabchick breeding and habitat.”

It also proposed to capture and relocate any shortfin eels or other native fish, before draining the pond and waterways.

Council officials accepted Amazon’s assessment of the artificial wetlands’ “low” aquatic values.

Amazon bought the neighbouring properties in May last year – and wasn’t afraid to pay top dollar.

The bigger 2.64ha corner property with the pond, valued at $13.1m, was purchased for $33m according to property listing records – somewhat of a windfall for the longtime owner-occupiers of the house. Marketing the property, estate agent Beterly Pan acknowledged the property’s “true value” was not in the elegant house and ancillary buildings, but in developing the site from scratch.

It was the first major site to come on the market in the fast-growing Westgate precinct for some time, Pan said. Microsoft (which is less secretive than Amazon) was already building a data centre nearby.

The smaller property at No 75, which contained a 5-bedroom Outrageous Fortune-style house, was purchased for $23.4m. That too was far above its 2021 rateable valuation of $8.5m.

About 500m east of the building site is Kokupaka Reserve, the Aurecon report says, and near that a natural wetland at the corner of Kakano Rd and Maki St. Ngongetepara Stream and Totara Creek are less than 1km away, running on either site of Amazon’s site.

Aurecon recommends monitoring the groundwater levels with data loggers, as Amazon plans to dig down five metres – that’s two metres below existing groundwater levels.

The authors of the Aurecon report, environment consultants Oksana Zhang and Abigail Naylor, write: “The proposal will have positive effects on the environment as it will prepare the site for future development and will create positive economic effects for the local area in terms of employment opportunity.

An architectural rendering of a new Amazon Web Services data centre being built overlooking Costco, in west Auckland. Image: Aurecon/Auckland Council

“The anticipated future development is a data centre storage facility, creating positive effects through enabling an increase in data storage capacity, a wider range of internet services and faster response times – an important project for New Zealand’s digital infrastructure.”

Amazon Web Services NZ hasn’t responded to Newsroom questions about these west Auckland resource consents. However, earlier this week, Newsroom had asked country manager Tiffany Bloomquist about the company’s approach to water and overland waterways.

Data centres use enormous volumes of water to cool the computer servers – that and their power usage are the biggest environmental concerns about rapid erection of cloud computing centres around the world. This year, Google revealed for the first time the water usage of its data centres: 16 billion litres of water were needed to cool the company’s data centres in 2021 – or 1.7 million litres a day, for each average-sized data centre.

But Amazon won’t say, and Watercare says it doesn’t yet have any bespoke water usage arrangements for data centres. “They’re charged in the same way as any commercial customer, with a volumetric charge for their water used, and an Infrastructure Growth Charge if applicable,” says Watercare spokesperson Mel Verran.

Bloomquist declined to say what (if any) water usage rights the company would be seeking in Auckland. “We’re not communicating anything specific today about our water usage,” she said. “We will align with any of the requirements that we have to meet locally for water usage. But we do not have a specific numbers that we can share about what the data centre will use.”

Tiffany Bloomquist says the Amazon Web Services will consider the impact of the Auckland floods in building its new data centres. Photo: Supplied

But at its big global Re:Invent conference last year, the company had committed to being “water positive” by 2030. “And that is because we want to return more water to communities than we use in our direct operations at data centres,” she said.

“That means there’s a variety of different ways that we’re working to reduce the amount of water we use to cool, first and foremost, but then also make sure that we are being efficient in the consumption. We’re using that to guide the strategy for what we do in New Zealand as well.”

Amazon Web Services says it uses sustainable water sources, such as recycled water and harvested rainwater, wherever possible. It already uses recycled water for cooling at 20 data centres around the world, which it says preserves valuable drinking water for communities and the environment.

Newsroom asked how Amazon would ensure it didn’t deplete the drinking water available to the Auckland community and environment. “That’s exactly what the announcements at Re:Invent were about,” Bloomquist said. “We do not want to cause harm in the local communities. And that’s why the work that we’re doing is to make sure that we’ve got the right efficiency usage of the amount of water per kilowatt hour, as well as how we’re actually investing the local communities to be water positive.

“As soon as I have more information about what we’re going to be able to do with the local data centre, I’ll share that with you.”

Newsroom asked about Amazon’s exposure to west Auckland’s increasingly frequent floods.

She said Amazon Web Services has “a mental model around designing for failure”, so it has automated processes in place for when a system fails. 

“Each region consists of a minimum of three isolated, physically separate, what we call ‘availability zones’, and they have independent power, cooling and physical security. And obviously, there’s a low latency network that connects them.

“The foundational layer of our design principles is about the environmental layer, which is proactively preparing for any potential threats exactly like you said, floods, but also earthquakes or even other types of extreme weather events, like we’ve already seen this year with the cyclones.

“So our data centre locations, which we don’t disclose, are chosen specifically to mitigate these risks and to take into consideration how we’re going to be able to construct, operate and and sustainably manage them in the long term.”

Auckland Council’s GIS map shows minor overland flow paths across the site of Amazon Web Services’ new west Auckland data centre. Source: Auckland GIS

The company wasn’t surprised by the Auckland floods and Cyclone Gabrielle, and their impact on west Auckland in particular – though the size of the storms was notable. “These were of a scale and magnitude that I think New Zealand hasn’t experienced before,” Bloomquist said. “So all those learnings that we’ve had from a lot of the folks across the region will be fed back into our infrastructure team as they think about their planning.”

The Auckland resource consents were signed off by council team leader Brogan McQuoid, after inspecting the site and advice from in-house specialists. The specialists said dewatering the wetlands was a permitted activity.

Policy E3 of the Auckland Unitary Plan requires that draining wetlands be avoided unless there is “no practicable alternative” for undertaking the activity outside of the wetland, and that the activity avoids significant adverse effects. “As stated above, it is considered that there is no practicable alternative to retain the wetland features while enabling the site for development in line with the underlying zone,” McQuoid’s decision says. “It is considered that any significant adverse effects can be successfully avoided with the implementation of the proposed mitigation measures.”

Aurecon’s environment report to the council reveals more about the scale of the construction project – information kept a closely-guarded secret by Amazon Web Services and some other big data centre providers. The earthworks to prepare the ground for the data centre will require contractors to cut away 65,000 cubic metres of earth, and then place 19,200 cubic metres of fill.

Amazon won’t even confirm the data centre’s address – it considers even the disclosure of data centres’ locations to be a security risk.

The Atlantic magazine conducted an investigation into the whereabouts of Amazon’s data centres in the United States. “Unlike Google and Facebook, AWS doesn’t aggressively brand or call attention to their data centres,” wrote journalist Ingrid Burrington. “They absolutely don’t give tours, and their website offers only rough approximations of the locations of their data centres, which are divided into ‘regions’. Within a region lies at minimum two ‘availability zones’ and within the availability zones there are a handful of data centres.”

The company announced in September 2021 that it would open a “region” in New Zealand, based at three inter-linked zones around Auckland. It’s refused to say where. 

That secrecy has proved contentious, around the world.

“Data centres have always suffered from this bogus secrecy,” writes Peter Judge, the global editor at DatacenterDynamics. “Amazon insists it can’t say where these data centres are for security reasons. I think it’s also marketing: keeping the exact locations private helps to promote the idea of a dematerialised cloud.”

But when it comes to the crunch, it’s been unable to hide them. For instance, a fire broke out in the roof of a data centre in Ashburn, Virginia. It would hardly have been practical to hide the building’s identity from the local fire service, and so that data centre’s whereabouts became publicly known.

Smoke rising from the roof of an Amazon data centre in Ashburn, Virginia. Photo: Rob Johnston

The company says: “Only those within Amazon who have a legitimate business need to have such information know the actual location of these data centres.”

But that argument quickly disintegrates when considered within the framework of the data centres’ impact on their natural environment – the habitats of flora and fauna, the groundwater, and the flow of overland waterways.

“Given the interface between the cloud and the physical world with its rules and requirements, AWS must be sharing this information with partners,” Judge argues “They have an unarguable business need. And for those outside with a non-business interest (or commercial hackers with a hostile business interest) it should be relatively easy to find out where they are.”

He acknowledges Amazon’s concern about physical attacks on their data centres, such as electromagnetic pulse weapons, or denial of service attacks on the local grid. 

But he says concealing their whereabouts won’t protect them from anyone sufficiently motivated and resourced to conduct such an attack. “We already know that ‘security through obscurity’ is a dud strategy in cyberspace. Why Amazon and the rest think it’s viable in the real world is beyond me.”

Newsroom Pro managing editor Jonathan Milne covers business, politics and the economy.

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