Rainwater collection case leads to jail sentence, fine

Mail Tribune | July 27, 2012
By Mark Freeman

A rural Eagle Point man was sentenced to 30 days in jail Wednesday for filling what state water managers have called three illegal reservoirs on his property.

Gary Harrington was also fined more than $1,500 for nine misdemeanor convictions for filling his reservoirs with rain and snow runoff that the state says is owned by the Medford Water Commission. He was given two weeks to report to the Jackson County Jail to begin serving his sentence.

Harrington said he stores the water mainly for fire protection and has pledged to appeal his convictions.

"Thirty days in jail for catching rainwater?" Harrington said Wednesday to the Mail Tribune.

"We live in an extreme wildfire area and here the government is going to open the valves and really waste all the water right now, at the start of peak fire season," Harrington said.

At the center of the case was a 1925 state law giving the water commission exclusive rights to all the water in Big Butte Creek, its tributaries and Big Butte Springs the core of the city's municipal water supply.

In court filings Harrington had argued that he's not diverting water from the creek system, merely capturing rainwater and snowmelt from his 172 acres along Crowfoot Road.

Harrington has maintained that this runoff, called "diffused water," does not fall under the state water-resources jurisdiction and does not violate the 1925 act.

In the past, water managers have concluded that the runoff is a tributary of nearby Crowfoot Creek and thus subject to the law.

A six-person jury earlier this month sided with the state on nine misdemeanor charges. They were three counts each on charges of illegal use of water denied by a watermaster, unauthorized use of water and interfering with a lawfully established head gate or water box.

The charges are all misdemeanors. Harrington pleaded guilty to similar charges in 2002 and applied for permits for his reservoirs, but they were denied.

At the request of the Jackson County District Attorney's Office, Harrington's case was prosecuted by the state Department of Justice. DOJ prosecutor Patrick Flanagan handled the case, and he could not be reached Wednesday for comment.