Louisiana Supreme Court in New Orleans upheld part of a lower court rule stating Catahoula Lake is private land but reversed some $38 million in awards to the plaintiffs.
The Court on Jan. 28 affirmed in part and reversed in part previous decisions on “Steve Crooks and Era Lee Crooks v. State of Louisiana, Department of Natural Resources.”
The central Louisiana lake, frequented by duck hunters, has been off-limits to public use after a Rapides Parish 9th District Court judge and Third Circuit Court of Appeal ruled the long-time public lake was private land.
“This decision is a big win for the taxpayers of Louisiana and the agencies tasked with constructing and improving critical infrastructure across our State,” said Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry. “In addition to having $22.08 million in attorney’s fees struck down by the Third Circuit Court of Appeal, our team has now been able to save taxpayers $28.46 million in judicial interest on top of the $38.29 million damages award.”
In 2006, Steve and Era Crooks filed a class-action lawsuit against the State of Louisiana saying landowners surrounding the lake are owners of the lake.
In 2018, Rapides Parish, ad-hoc Judge James Boddie ruled in favor of the Crooks’ in “Crooks v. State” saying the state had unlawfully expropriated the river banks, owing the landowners $38 million in damages as well as $4.5 million in unpaid oil and gas royalties, after oil drilling has been taking place in the area throughout the years.
“The fight is not over yet as the Supreme Court did not reverse the lower court’s reclassification of Catahoula Lake as a river, thus leaving some possible confusion regarding the accessibility of the Lake for public hunting and fishing,” Landry said. “We will evaluate all our options, including a rehearing and legislation; and we continue to do all we legally can to protect the rights of sportsmen to both access and harvest from our State’s bountiful waters.”
What is Catahoula Lake?
Catahoula Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Louisiana, covering over 46 square miles.
The area once held a meandering stream that seasonally flooded thousands of acres within the river basin for months at a time.
In 1962, the United States began constructing the Jonesville Lock and Dam, Archie Weir on Little River and the Catahoula Diversion Canal around the Catahoula Basin in accordance with the River and Harbor Act of 1960.
In connect with the project, the Catahoula Lake Water Level Management Agreement was developed to ensure that proper water level management would protect wildlife and public recreation opportunities in the Catahoula Basin, including Catahoula Lake.
The United States Fish and Wildlife Service began managing water levels in and around the Catahoula Basin in 1972 after the basin was permanently flooded.
Plaintiffs argue, that though referred to as a lake, the area known as Catahoula Lake actually constitutes the banks of a body of water in the Catahoula Basin called Little River. The plaintiffs went on to argue because it is part of Little River, it is owned by the property owners in accordance with Louisiana’s laws of riparian ownership.
Louisiana’s laws of riparian ownership state the banks of navigable rivers or streams are private things that are subject to public use. The bank of a navigable river or stream is the land lying between the ordinary low and the ordinary high stage of the water.
The Catahoula Basin in the 1800’s
Witnesses for both plaintiffs and the State agree the best evidence for determining whether or not the area is a lake or river is from historical reports from the 1800’s.
Thomas Jefferson in 1804 sent William Dunbar on an expedition that included the Catahoula Basin.
Dunbar described the body of water as an inflow from Little River “that preserves a channel running water at all season, meandering along the bed of the lake; but all other parts of its superficies during the dry season from July to November … are completely drained and become clothed in the most luxuriant herbage,” which becomes grazing land for “immense herds of deer.”
Dunbar’s description presents the primary basis for the court’s analysis of the water body’s legal classification.
Another explorer, William Darby, published a journal and map of his observation of Catahoula Basin in 1816. Darby asserted the basin was a lake which the court said was wrong. Darby further noted as the water is seasonally drained by the river depression, the lake bed becomes “a meadow of succulent herbage, with channels for the waters that continue meandering through them.”