The Louisiana Supreme Court partly upheld a court’s decision to assign new ownership and rename what had been designated a lake since 1812, leaving advocates confused as to the body of water’s purpose.
What was known as Catahoula Lake is now a permanent river that seasonally overflowed and covered its banks, according to the Louisiana Supreme Court’s Jan. 29, 2020 decision.
"The question now is what is the public’s right to have it managed in a way that benefits wildlife and fish," said Rebecca Triche, executive director of the Lousiana Wildlife Federation.
Catahoula Lake was redefined as a result of a lawsuit that Steve and Era Lee Crooks filed against the state of Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.
“It’s crazy that this body of water could become private land after 208 years of being public property managed by the state and federal governments,” said Richard Keim, professor of forest hydrology at LSU who was deposed by the Crooks who are private landowners living next to the lake. “It’s been a special hunting district, an important duck habitat and even has its own hunting laws.”
Based on the trial court findings, the plaintiffs were divided into two segments. The Lake Plaintiffs and the Swamp Plaintiffs as owners of the overflow lands, according to a press release.
“A review of the petition, and of the evidence adduced without objection, reveals that the operative facts which give rise to this litigation are that the State granted mineral leases on plaintiffs’ lands, and received mineral royalties from those leases,” wrote Justice Michael E. Kirby who authored the decision. “Accepting these facts as true, the plaintiffs have asserted a cause of action against the State for mineral royalties.”
As previously reported, Attorney General Jeff Landry touted the Louisiana Supreme Court decision as a victory for taxpayers because the state no longer is liable for a nearly $95 million judgment.
"When the district court rendered its original decision on May 15, including judicial interest, the State owed $94,622,490.10," said Ryan Seidemann, assistant attorney general in the Civil Division. "We took over the case on appeal at the Third Circuit, which rendered its decision on Dec. 18, 2018. At that point, with judicial interest, the State owed $68,026,623.02."
But after the Supreme Court’s rendering of judgment on January 29, including judicial interest, the state only owes $8,794,449.46.
"In total, from the loss at the district court to now, our attorneys have saved the State $85,828,040.64," Seidemann told the Louisiana Record. "Keep in mind that this matter is still pending rehearing before the Supreme Court on most, if not all, of the outstanding amounts as well as questions of property law and we have not yet ruled out further appeals."
Critics remain unconvinced that the Supreme Court opinion is a victory.
“We are glad to see that the state isn't required to come up with all this money but there are remaining decisions that need to be made about boundaries and ownership,” Triche told the Louisiana Record in an interview.
Until now, the water entity in question had been managed as publicly owned but the Supreme Court’s ruling changed a portion of it to privately managed.
LWF, Delta Waterfowl (Delta), and Backcountry Hunters & Anglers (BHA) had filed an amicus brief to support the State of Louisiana, stating concerns about what will happen to the management of Catahoula Lake and the public’s natural resources if the lower court decision was upheld and Catahoula Lake declared privately owned.
“I don’t know how the state can manage on behalf of the public without determining the boundaries,” said Triche in a phone interview. "If this is not a lake, as thought to be since the 1800s, then the public needs guidance and direction so that we can move forward with management principals.”
However, a comprehensive water management plan for Louisiana has not yet been adopted although the state has spent some $5.3 million on a dozen water resource and management studies, according to media reports.
“That’s why you need a water management plan, a water code and a water manager so that you can show a judge exactly how a body of water is being managed,” said Gina Brown, an audit manager with the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.
The Tulane Institute on Water Resources Law and Policy is creating a statewide water code after having received a grant from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, according to a press release.
“The courts are not going to create a water management plan for Louisiana and the future. That's for the state to do,” Brown told the Louisiana Record.
But unless the state acts upon legislation that has yet to be introduced, the court of appeal judgment is partly reversed.
“In part, insofar as it upheld the award of $28,745,438.40, and the interest thereon, to the Lake Plaintiffs, and the award of $9,550,800.00, and the interest thereon, to the Swamp Plaintiffs, the owners of the overflow lands for compensation for the inverse condemnation of their lands by the State,” the Supreme Court ruled. “In all other respects, the judgment is affirmed. REVERSED IN PART; AFFIRMED IN PART.”
This isn't the Crooks' first lawsuit. In 2012, they sued Sanchez Oil & Gas Corp et al, alleging contamination of their land as a result of wrongful acts and omissions on the part of the defendants.
"The contamination of plaintiff's property was caused or contributed to by the wrongful installation, construction, maintenance, and operation of pipelines and tank batteries located on the property," states the Crooks' petition for damages filed in the Louisiana Western District Court.
That same year, the Crooks also sued Louisiana Pacific Corp in the Louisiana Western District Court, alleging their land had been contaminated due to the wrongful acts or omissions which occurred during exploration for and production of various minerals by the defendant or third parties who operated on behalf of the defendant.