On 11 April 2015, the website YourNewsWire.com published an article titled “Man Gets Prison Sentence for Collecting Rainwater on His Own Property” that quickly drew widespread interest on social media due to its alarming claims.
The article (to which was appended a photograph of a clearly distraught man) described the purported plight of Oregon resident Gary Harrington, who supposedly had been “just sentenced to prison” for the simple act of collecting rainwater on his own property, even though rainwater collection is a popular and common practice among farmers and self-sufficient Americans.
According to the article’s leading paragraphs, Harrington fell victim to (unspecified) new laws enacted “over the past few years” that forbade the collection of rainwater by citizens, and he found himself in a situation that could happen to everyone interested in collecting rainwater on their own privately-held land:
Collecting rainwater on your own property can now lead to jail time, as proven by a man from Oregon who was just sentenced to prison for doing just that. Who owns the rain? The US government, apparently, now. Not so long ago, it was common practice across much of the world to collect rainwater into man made wells on your property as a means of farming, irrigation, and having fresh clean water. It was just as common as canning your own food, having knowledge of at least some basic survival skills, and being self-sufficient.
It wasn’t even that many generations ago that all of this was common practice — people born before WWII were pretty adept at these skills, as they were a necessity to survival. One of the main (and easiest) ways to ensure survival? Collecting rainwater on your own property. The practical uses for storing and collecting rainwater are numerous and many people across the world in rural areas still do it today for all of the reasons listed above. However, over the past few years, laws making the collection of rainwater illegal have been causing an uproar across the US.
The article’s initial tone led readers to believe that Harrington was (at the time) in jail over what looked to be increased governmental restrictions on homesteading or survivalist behaviors. But the piece continued with quotes pasted from earlier articles which expanded the initial context and the complexity of the situation in a manner that almost entirely negated the piece’s earlier paragraphs.
First, the source article for the 11 April 2015 YourNewsWire.com piece had been published on 26 July 2012, nearly three years earlier. Harrington hadn’t “just (been) sentenced” to prison for rainwater collection, as the described culmination of his legal battle had occurred several years prior to the rumor’s 2015 revival.
And that wasn’t the only misleading aspect of the claim. A press release (issued on 29 July 2012 by the Oregon Water Resources Department and published by Eugene television station KVAL) was prefaced with the information that it was “legal to collect rainwater off of surfaces like roofs or tarps, (but) property owners need to obtain permits before altering or collecting flowing bodies of water.” Harrington’s case was described as one that was far in excess of an individual’s simple collection of rainwater:
Harrington stored and used water illegally by placing dams across channels on his property and preventing the flow of water out of these artificial reservoirs without obtaining a water right permit. The height of each dam varies; two dams stand about ten feet tall and the third stands about 20 feet tall. The total amount of water collected behind these dams totals about 40 acre feet; enough to fill almost 20 Olympic-sized swimming pools. These man-made reservoirs feature boat docks, boats, and were stocked by Harrington with trout and Bluegill for recreational fishing.
The state first identified Harrington’s illegal water use more than ten years ago and initiated enforcement action to discontinue his illegal use of water. After numerous attempts by OWRD and the Watermaster to achieve voluntary compliance, the Department enlisted the assistance of the Oregon State Police in 2002. Citations were issued, and Harrington pleaded guilty to several violations. He was assessed a nominal fine and ordered to drain the three reservoirs, which he did. However, Harrington again closed the headgates in 2004 and refilled the reservoirs. As a result, OWRD and the Oregon State Police submitted reports to the Jackson County District Attorney’s Office alleging additional violations of Oregon water law. That office filed misdemeanor charges against Harrington, and in 2008 he pled guilty to one count. He was issued another fine, placed on one year probation, and was again ordered to drain the reservoirs.
An article published in the Medford Mail Tribune on 26 April 2013 quoted Jackson County Circuit Judge Lorenzo Mejia, who had sentenced Harrington, as chastising Harrington for his non-compliance with previous court rulings and admonishing him for misrepresenting his case to the media:
Harrington has been repeatedly convicted over an 11-year span for illegally storing water on his Crowfoot Road property without a permit. He even pleaded guilty to similar charges in 2008, but he refuses to drain the ponds as ordered by the court, Mejia said.
“Most people, when caught in a criminal act, at least promise not to do the act again,” Mejia said, adding Harrington was “willfully in violation of the orders of the court.”
“You put yourself forward as to the public as some kind of a crusader for property rights,” Mejia said. “I’m not saying you’re a horrible, bad man. But I find you have been dishonest with the court. You have been nothing but willful.”
Although in a strictly literal sense Oregon resident Gary Harrington was indeed sentenced to prison for collecting rainwater, that sentence followed several years of legal dispute over what the state continually described his willful and flagrant operation of a number of illegal reservoirs. Moreover, Harrington’s dispute with water authorities in Oregon was not first disclosed in 2015 (nor even in 2012), as police had been publicly involved in investigating his water collection issues as early as 2002. Finally, the laws in question are not new laws aimed at criminalizing water collection in Oregon or elsewhere; rather, the law that Harrington was found to be in violation of was passed in 1925, and the cited case involving Harrington’s large (illegal) reservoirs was decided in 2007.