What Eastsound’s water is telling us

by Toby Cooper

If you listen carefully, water — that miraculous, life-supporting substance that covers 70% of our planet — talks to us. And when water talks, it speaks volumes. It speaks about climate change, about politics, about human survival itself.

But when it spoke to the Eastsound Water Users Association last month, something curious happened, and it caught my attention.

On Sept. 22, the EWUA published a water-use study under a banner headline that read, Eastsound Water Board Corrects Misleading Report on VR Water Usage. But it turns out the “misleading” report was not misleading at all. Let me explain.

In 2019, then-Eastsound Water General Manager Paul Kamin found that VRs use a lot of water. A typical two-bedroom home is occupied by a family of three, but a two-bedroom home with a vacation rental permit is allowed an occupancy of up to seven. It comes as no surprise that the VR property – while occupied – will consume roughly double the water.

That caveat, while occupied, is critical. If water use while occupied is the “worst case” result, what barriers are there to extending that worst case into more of the calendar year? After all, VRs are not vacant by design or regulation, but by markets. They are open for business every day of the year. Moreover, what permanent barriers are there to the proliferation of ever-more VRs in Eastsound or elsewhere in the county? None at this time, of course. But there should be, and we have a chance to change that now.

Paul concluded that VRs use about 89% more water in July and August, months with the most tourists and the least rainfall.

So, what did Eastsound’s water board find? They sliced and diced the data to a more granular level by creating user-categories and blocking the calendar year into segments for analysis. They uncovered many possible iterations and combinations to calculate, but no matter how you do it, residences with VRs consume about 74 to 110% more water than the equivalent residences without VR permits. Peak season VRs may use 3X the water relative to an equivalent residence.

So where does this leave us? It appears the spitting match between the EWUA and Paul Kamin is, as William Shakespeare wrote, Much Ado About Nothing. They fundamentally agree. All this argues for more limits to VRs, not less. Never mind Shakespeare; today We Are All in This Together.

Yonatan Aldort said of VRs last March, “No other business enterprise integrates itself, uninvited, with such proximal imposition into our private lives. They tiptoe in looking like familiar residences, offering few clues to their commercial pedigree, and yet they hold undeniable power to transform a community.”

Amen, Yonatan.

The county council agrees. After extensive (and exhaustive) public hearings this year, the Council found that “the over-concentration of vacation rentals within neighborhoods … will negatively impact the sense of community, the environment, overload the infrastructure … and degrade the tourist experience.”

If you feel the earth trembling under your feet these days, it is because the council and the San Juan County Planning Commission are at long last considering rational limits to the open-ended proliferation of VRs on these beautiful islands that we love, and we need them to do the right thing.

The debate is timely, robust, and hopefully productive. Let us listen — including to the pragmatism of straightforward water data — and solve this now.