Oregon man disputes convictions of illegal water use

MEDFORD, Ore. — A rural Eagle Point man said he will continue his decade-long legal battle with Oregon water managers over what they call illegal reservoirs.

Gary Harrington said the water containers are merely ponds holding rain and snow runoff from his property, and that he stores the water mainly for fire protection.

The Mail Tribune reported Harrington plans to appeal his recent conviction on nine misdemeanor charges for filling his reservoirs with rain and snow runoff that the state maintains is owned by the Medford Water Commission.

Harrington disagrees with the state’s interpretation of a 1925 state law granting the commission broad water rights to the Big Butte Creek Basin. He believes he’s been singled out amid other pond owners.

“When it comes to the point where a rural landowner can’t catch rainwater that falls on his land to protect his property, it’s gone too far,” he said. “This should serve as a dire warning to all pond owners.”

Officials hope Harrington’s July 25 sentencing ends what they consider a constant battle. The dispute has dragged through the state court system since Harrington was first convicted of illegally taking water without a permit in 2002.

“Water law is water law, whether you agree with it or not,” Jackson County Water Master Larry Menteer said.

Harrington’s case was prosecuted by the state Department of Justice at the request of the Jackson County District Attorney’s office. Prosecutor Patrick Flanagan, who handled the case, declined to comment until after Harrington’s sentencing.

Harrington fired his lawyer in May and represented himself at his trial, which opened Tuesday. On Wednesday, a six-member jury convicted him on three counts each on charges of illegal use of water denied by a water master, unauthorized use of water and interfering with a lawfully established head gate or water box.

In 2002, Harrington pleaded guilty to similar charges applied for permits for his reservoirs, They were denied.

At issue is the interpretation of the 1925 state law that gave the water commission exclusive rights to all the water in Big Butte Creek, its tributaries and Big Butte Springs. That’s core of the city’s municipal water supply.

Harrington has argued in court documents that he’s not diverting water from the creek system, but capturing rainwater and snowmelt from his 172-acre property along Crowfoot Road. He maintained that the runoff does not fall under the state’s jurisdiction and does not violate the 1925 act.

Water managers have said the runoff is a tributary of nearby Crowfoot Creek and thus subject to the law.

“It’s a 10-year-old case,” said Janelle McFarland, the original Oregon state police trooper who investigated the initial complaints but has since retired. “Mr. Harrington was given every opportunity to comply with the water law and he chose not to.”

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