by Michael Riordan
Contrary to what people may have read or heard on island, transient vacation rentals do in fact use more water than residences lacking such permits — and in some cases a lot more water.
This is the inescapable conclusion of a recent Eastsound Water Users Association report on the subject, although you wouldn’t know it from reading General Manager Dan Burke’s article about the study (https://www.islandssounder.com/news/ewua-board-corrects-a-misleading-report-on-vacation-rentals/).
Looking closely at the EWUA data, for the summers of 2019 through 2021, one finds that residences with vacation rental permits use at least 74 percent more water than residences without them. For the peak tourist months of July and August, when stresses on the EWUA system are greatest because of the lack of significant rainfall, the water usage of residences with vacation rentals comes in between 100 percent and 110 percent greater than residences without them, depending on how you average (see chart). In other words, they are using at least twice as much water in those months.
These figures align rather well with what former EWUA General Manager Paul Kamin told a gathering of the Vacation Rental Working Group in September 2019: that residences in the EWUA area with vacation rentals use 89 percent more water in the dry months of July and August. In fact, it now seems that he was being conservative. Quizzed about this number after the meeting, Paul said that it was not just the extra showers and toilet flushes contributing to the additional usage. It includes the fact that transient rental owners are often watering lawns and shrubs in those dry months, trying to keep them attractive for their customers.
One consideration the new EWUA report adds to the discussion is to separate holders of VR permits into two categories: full-time residences and seasonal residences. The rather arbitrary dividing line between the two is whether they used 3,000 gallons of water during the first quarter of a given year. This is a useful distinction. On average, seasonal residences with VR permits used a striking 234 percent more water in July and August than those without permits, while the full-time category increased by 54 percent. It is unreasonable, however, to exclude seasonal residences from the full sample. If you include them (as I have), the overall three-year average usage by residences with VR permits is 100 percent more than those without them. If you consider only the pre-Covid year of 2019, the difference increases to 110 percent: an average 13,954 gallons versus 6,661. Overall, transient rentals effectively double the water consumption of permitted homes in July and August.
This is what Kamin tried to tell us in 2019, but his “unauthorized” report did not sit well with the EWUA Board, which recently called it “misleading” in a prominent Orcasonian headline . It seems that politics is coloring the facts here. If anything, the new report puts an exclamation point on Kamin’s analysis. One of the values of his prescient work is that EWUA has a plethora of reliable, fine-grained data on the water usage of its members — certainly the best on Orcas Island. Thus his conclusions, made before the pandemic hit, likely apply to vacation rentals throughout the county. They are highly relevant to the upcoming County Council meeting about limiting VR permits.
Eastsound resident Michael Riordan writes about science, technology and public policy.