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  • Illegal, private rainwater dams are removed

  • State water resources officials armed with a court order Tuesday destroyed the infrastructure to three illegal reservoirs on private land in the Butte Falls area, hoping it ends the legal clash with the dams' former owner who twice has gone to jail as a convicted water thief.
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  • State water resources officials armed with a court order Tuesday destroyed the infrastructure to three illegal reservoirs on private land in the Butte Falls area, hoping it ends the legal clash with the dams' former owner who twice has gone to jail as a convicted water thief.
    Crews with an Oregon State Police escort entered the Crowfoot Road property of Gary Harrington before dawn and over the course of the day destroyed the head gates and outlets that state court cases have ruled were part of illegal dams impounding stolen water.
    For more than a decade, Harrington maintained his ponds were the result of simply capturing rainwater on his property, yet a 1925 state law dictates that the water belongs to the Medford Water Commission. Also, the dams were built without permits and the water impounded without any water rights.
    While defying court orders to stop — and serving two stints in the Jackson County Jail — Harrington has been touted by some as a property-rights champion despite losing in state courts at every turn.
    Jackson County Circuit Judge Lorenzo Mejia signed an order April 10 directing the Oregon Water Resources Department to drain the reservoirs, which had a combined capacity of 40 acre-feet, and dismantle the dams so water would flow through them unimpeded.
    Those were the same requirements as when Harrington was convicted on nine misdemeanors in 2012.
    "We're following the court order to ensure no future storage of water can occur," state water resources spokeswoman Racquel Rancier said. "This has been going on for 13 years."
    Though an OSP overflight found the reservoirs to be about half-full as recently as March, they were empty when water-resources officials arrived, Rancier said.
    Mejia's order requires Harrington to pay for Tuesday's activities. No cost of the operation was available, Rancier said.
    Two of the dams were listed in court documents as 10 feet tall and a third was 20 feet tall. Together, they had the capacity to impound enough water to fill 200 Olympic-sized swimming pools.
    Though they had docks and were at times stocked with fish, Harrington has said the water was kept in case it was needed to battle summer wildfires.
    At issue was the interpretation of a law passed in 1925 by the Oregon Legislature 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 has argued that he's not diverting water from the creek system, merely capturing rainwater and snowmelt from his 172 acres. He has also maintained that this runoff, called "diffused water," does not fall under the state's 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.
    Furthermore, state laws consider diffused water to be what falls and is captured from impervious surfaces, such as water running off a roof into a rain barrel.
    An Oregon Department of Transportation crew that included two excavators and a bulldozer completed the demolition in about nine hours, Rancier said.
    Harrington and his wife were present, were cooperative and were free to come and go from their property, but they were banned from interfering with the work, she said.
    Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com.
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