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Clogged ditches: Clean-up rules vary widely

Whether private property owners must foot the bill for clearing weeds, trash and debris from drainage ditches depends on where you live.

The issue has resurfaced in recent weeks after rain and flooding prompted cities around the valley to assess their capacity for storm runoff and to create ordinances to keep storm channels clear. When they're clogged with vegetation or trash, storm water can back up and cause localized flooding.

Last month, the Central Point City Council approved a storm drain maintenance fee.

On Tuesday, the Eagle Point City Council granted initial approval for a law requiring property owners to keep ditches cleaned out.

Rules on maintaining drainage ditches ' often abandoned irrigation or stream channels ' vary from one city to the next, depending on city size, budget and whether the water comes from irrigation systems or Mother Nature.

— In Medford, private ditches that accept runoff from the city's storm drains are maintained by the city, which usually has an easement, said City Engineer Larry Beskow.

On properties where no easement is in place, the city does not perform routine maintenance. But if somebody was in imminent danger of being flooded, we'd go in and do something if they asked us to, Beskow said, especially if public storm water is flowing there.

On the other hand, if one private property is flooding another, the city does not get involved.

When we have no easement on private property, there's not a lot we can do, Beskow said. I'm sure some of our system goes into private ditches where we don't have easements, but I'm not aware of any situation where we're flooding somebody out and they call for help and we're ignoring them.

In contrast to Medford's city-funded maintenance, the city of Jacksonville requires property owners to clean ditches that channel storm runoff ' or pay the city to do so.

In Ashland, which is serviced by the Talent Irrigation District, district waterways are maintained by the city, said code compliance officer Adam Hanks.

The Talent Irrigation District mostly runs by private properties, but there's an easement, Hanks said. Private property owners aren't required to handle it.

Ditches on private property that are not part of the irrigation district could be addressed under the city's weed abatement ordinance if necessary, he said.

In Talent, which also is served by TID, city officials sympathize with their counterparts in Eagle Point, as old sections of town connect with new development and funds are scarce for a maintenance program.

City Recorder Betty Smith said the city has ditches that control storm runoff but are not part of the irrigation district system.

We have ordinances for new development, Smith said. But existing ditches, we would not have the ability to go onto somebody's property to make them clean it unless it was creating a problem for another property owner or the city.

If someone's property was draining onto somebody else's, we'd ask them to redirect the water. The problem is, to adopt an ordinance, we assume something we don't have ' which is an effective storm water system throughout the city for managing runoff.

For new development, we have some stringent requirements, but for existing old sections of town, it's a problem — sometimes it just runs off onto the road.

In cases where irrigation district waterways have been abandoned, Smith said the city addresses the issue as development takes place. When irrigation districts abandon a waterway in general, TID manager Jim Pendleton said maintenance responsibility defaults to the property owner.

We have some ditches no longer in use and we try to plug those off or try to abandon the easement, he said.

We've got some isolated areas with ditches on private properties that aren't used anymore. Landowners all seem to know where they stand, as do we.

Arnold Strite, who owns a home off Table Rock Road, said some of his neighbors fail to keep their ditches clean, causing problems for the entire neighborhood.

The county has cleaned out the ditches that go to the culvert and under the street. From there on it's full of trash, beer bottles, weeds — an enlightened city or county would tack something on the deed that says you must maintain this, Strite said.

County engineer Dale Petrasek said private property in the county is not maintained as part of the county roads system.

Our funds are basically constitutionally required only to be spent on roads, so we only keep clean and do the drainage maintenance inside the road right of way, Petrasek said. If it's causing damage to the roads, we have different methods to go about requiring compliance — but there's nothing in place at this point to require private property owners to clean their ditches.

Eagle Point council considers ordinance on ditch maintenance

The Eagle Point City Council will consider an ordinance that would require private property owners to maintain drainage ditches during its next meeting, set for 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall.

The ordinance would allow the city onto private property to clear dense vegetation from ditches if the property owner has not complied. It also would allow the city to impose a lien against the property to cover the cost.

Residents remain frustrated over confusion about easement rights onto drainage ditches, especially one along Buchanan Avenue in which some property deeds show an easement granted to the Little Butte Irrigation District while others do not.

The city says it's theirs and they say it's the city's, said homeowner Barry Grigsby of Laurel Street, who feels the city should maintain the ditch because it carries the nearby area's storm runoff.

Little Butte Irrigation District President Ken Olson says the district does not have easement rights to the ditch.

Olson said it would stand to reason that the city considered the ditch part of the city's storm system.

They're the ones that dug it out and straightened it out coming through town so it could handle the water. And they have a pipe that empties into it, Olson said.

While cities can decide on their own whether to provide maintenance of private ditches used for storm runoff, a big issue for Eagle Point is a lack of funding, said City Administrator David Hussell.

Eventually, he said, the city might create a system to help solve the city's historic flooding problems.

For now, the ditch on Buchanan gets water from a stormwater detention area, but is not part of the storm system. It is part of the natural drainage that comes through the city, said Hussell.

This legislation is just a first step to addressing a water problem that Eagle Point has faced for years and years, he said.

Buffy Pollock is a freelance writer living in Medford. E-mail her at buffypollock@juno.com.