The Catahoula Basin: Historically a River, Currently a Lake—Who Owns It?


by Ryan King, Senior Associate

Catahoula Lake is the largest freshwater lake in Louisiana, covering over 46 square miles.[1] During the 20th century, this body of water experienced significant geographical modifications because of man-made water control structures.[2] What was once a meandering stream that seasonally flooded thousands of acres within the river basin for several months each year has permanently flooded the basin since 1973, creating what is currently known as “Catahoula Lake.”[3]

Changing the designation of a body of water from “lake” to “river” has serious implications for landowners and the state. Currently, the Catahoula Basin is commonly known as a “lake”—a designation that would preserve ownership of the land below the ordinary high-water mark for the state.[4] However, in the recent case Crooks v. State, the court analyzed the historical background of the water body, concluding that the Catahoula Basin is legally a “river”[5] —which would preserve the ownership of the banks, the area between the ordinary low and high watermarks, for the riparian landowners.[6]

That conclusion also resulted in a finding that the State had unlawfully expropriated the river banks and owed the landowner plaintiffs over 30,000 acres of flooded land and nearly $38 million in damages, as well as over $4.5 million in unpaid oil and gas royalties.[7] This comment will provide a summary of the analysis used by the court in determining the legal identity of the historically non-permanent water body, commonly known as Catahoula Lake.

I. Legal Background of the Catahoula Basin

Upon joining the Union in 1812, Louisiana “acquired title, by virtue of its inherent authority, to the beds of navigable water bodies situated within its boundaries.”[8] Additionally, much of the Catahoula Basin was specifically designated as “swampland” and transferred to the state by the federal government under the Swampland Acts of 1849 and 1850.[9] Both the plaintiff landowners and the State stipulated in Crooks that Catahoula Lake was navigable in 1812;[10] therefore, Louisiana acquired ownership of the water body up to its ordinary high-water mark upon admission to the Union and had the power to determine the rights of the riparian owners.[11] Louisiana law dictates that the area of land between the ordinary low mark and ordinary high mark of navigable rivers is privately owned,[12] but that the land below the ordinary high mark of a lake is owned by the state.[13] Thus, the legal classification of the Catahoula Basin as a river or a lake determines whether the plaintiff landowners or the State owns the lands beneath the ordinary low-water and ordinary high-water marks of Catahoula Lake.

II. The Catahoula Basin in 1812

The expert witnesses for the plaintiffs and the State agreed that the historical evidence is the best evidence for determining the status of the basin in and around 1812. The Crooks court extensively reviewed the historical reports from the early 1800’s through the 1960’s to determine whether the area is legally a river or a lake.

The reports indicated that in 1804, Thomas Jefferson sent William Dunbar on an expedition that included the Catahoula Basin.[14] Dunbar described the body of water as having 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 it superficies during the dry season from July to November . . . are completely drained & become clothed in the most luxuriant herbage,” which becomes grazing land for “immense herds of deer.”[15] This description presents the primary basis for the court’s analysis of the water body’s legal classification.

Historically, the basin was composed of a small meandering stream for half of the year with extremely gradual banks, such that the seasonal overflow of waters from backed up tributaries caused the flooding of thousands of acres, turning the meandering stream into a lake.[16] In short, for half of the year, the basin contained a meandering stream, called Little River, surrounded by thousands of acres of grassland; for the other half of the year, Little River overflowed and flooded the thousands of acres of grassland creating what seemed to be a seasonal lake.[17] Based on Dunbar’s description and the expert testimony, the court concluded that Dunbar’s description of a meandering water body is entirely consistent with a river, not a lake.[18]

Next, the court relied upon the initial boundaries of Catahoula Parish adopted by the legislature in 1808. Most noteworthy is the fact that the legislature set Little River as the southern boundary, and not Catahoula Lake, thus implying that the channel of Little River traversed the entire Catahoula Basin.[20]  If the water body was considered a lake at the time, the parish boundary would have likely terminated at the edge of the lake, and not at the edge of the stream meandering through the lake.

In 1816, William Darby, another explorer, published a journal and map of his observations of the Catahoula Basin.[21] The court honed in on Darby’s assertion that designating the basin as a “lake” is a misnomer that would mislead individuals into believing it was a “constant repository of water,” when in fact it is “reservoirs filled annually by the hand of nature.”[22] Darby further noted that as the water is seasonally drained by the river depression, the lakebed becomes “a meadow of succulent herbage, with channels for the waters that continue meandering through them.”[23] This description was bolstered by the map, which also showed the channel of the Little River traversing the entirety of the Catahoula Basin.[24]

The court also examined later historical evidence from the mid 1900s,[25] which confirmed the earlier findings of Darby and Dunbar regarding the permanent and complete transversal of the basin by Little River and the seasonal inundation of the surrounding low lands.

Based on the historical evidence, the court found that in 1812, the Little River was a permanent body of water that completely traversed the Catahoula Basin and would seasonally overflow the otherwise vegetated surrounding low land, flooding thousands of acres.[26] 

III. Analysis

            In State v. Placid Oil, the court developed a several-factor test that is useful in determining whether a body of water is a lake or a river. However, the Crooks court determined that the Placid Oil test is applicable only to permanent bodies of water[28] and relied upon out-of-state authority to determine the treatment of seasonably flooded areas.

The court adopted the rule from the Illinois case Nottolini v. Lasalle National Bank, concluding that a “mere temporary body of water and specifically . . . the so-called Catahoula Lake, cannot be classified as a ‘Lake.’”[29] The court bolstered its conclusion by the Nebraska Supreme Court decision in Cooper v. Sanitary District No.1, finding that a stream seasonally flooding adjacent lands in its flood plain retains its character as a stream.[30] Finally, the court looked to the Louisiana case Schoeffler v. Drake Hunting Club for the principle that “the mere fact that privately-owned land or waterways are flooded or navigable does not render them public.”[31]

Based on the interpretation of Nottolini, Cooper, and Schoeffler, the court concluded that, in 1812, the Catahoula Basin did not meet the reasonably permanent requirement to be considered a lake,[32] but that it “was a permanent river that seasonally overflowed and covered its banks.”[33] Ultimately, this holding establishes the seasonally flooded lands of the Catahoula Basin as the banks of a river, which are privately owned by the riparian landowners.

IV. Damages & Conclusion

The plaintiffs argued that the permanent flooding of thousands of acres in the Basin caused by the construction of the Jonesville Lock and Dam structure in 1973 constituted an inverse condemnation for which they are due compensation.[34] The State raised exceptions of prescription[35] and no right of action because of a lack of property interest by the landowners.[36] The court concluded that the constant interference with the plaintiffs’ natural servitude of drain caused by the dam structure established a continuing tort, preventing the running of prescription.[37] Additionally, the court determined that the plaintiffs have a right of action against the State for unlawful expropriation of their lands because the “Act of Assurances” portion of the contract between the state and the federal government required the state to acquire all drainage servitudes around the Catahoula Basin necessary for the construction and maintenance of the dam structure.[38] The state was also required to hold the federal government harmless against all damages arising from the dam project.[39]

Consequently, the court found that an unlawful expropriation occurred and that the plaintiffs are due compensation for the full extent of their loss of enjoyment of the lands that were once seasonally dry.[40] The damages from the expropriation were fixed at $1,260 per acre for the entire class of plaintiffs, who were legally determined to be the owners of the 30,393.84 acres at issue.[41] Additionally, the riparian owners were awarded $4,694,309.68 for mineral royalties received by the state from their lands.[42]

Whether the holding in Crooks will affect the legal identification of other Louisiana water bodies remains to be seen. Its impact will likely be limited to water bodies with the similar geologic trait of being non-permanent and seasonally flooded, while permanent water bodies will likely continue to be analyzed under the Placid factors.


[1] Crooks v. State, No. 224,262, 2016 WL 3197532, at *5 (La. Dist. Ct. May 17, 2016).

[2] Id. at * 1.

[3] Id. at *2.

[4] Id. at *7 (citing State v. Placid Oil Co., 300 So. 2d 154, 172 (La. 1973)).

[5] Id. at *26–27.

[6] Id. at *7 (citing LA. Civ. Code art. 456 (2016)).

[7] Id. at *45.

[8] Id. at *6 (citing Act of April 8, 1812, ch. 50, 2 Stat. 701 (admitting the State of Louisiana to the Union)).

[9] Id.

[10] Id. at *3.

[11] Id. at *6 (first citing Shively v. Bowlby, 152 U.S. 1 (1894), and then citing State v. Richardson, 72 So. 984 (La. 1916)).

[12] LA. Civ. Code art. 456 (2017).

[13] Crooks, 2016 WL 3197532, at *6 (first citing State v. Placid Oil Co., 300 So. 2d 154 (La.1973), and then citing McCormick Oil & Gas Corp. v. Dow Chem. Co., 489 So. 2d 1047 (La. Ct. App. 1986)).

[14] William Dunbar, The Forgotten Expedition, 1804-1805: The Louisiana Purchase Journals of Dunbar and Hunter (Trey Berry et al. eds., 2006).

[15] Id. at 20.

[16] Crooks, 2016 WL 3197532, at *18.

[17] Id.

[18] Id. at *9.

[19] Id.

[20] Id. at *10.

[21] William Darby, A Geographical Description of the State of Louisiana (Johann P. Homann ed., 1817).

[22] Id. at 195.

[23] Id.  

[24] Crooks, 2016 WL 3197532, at *12.

[25] Id. at *13­–14 (citing Willian Chawner, Geology of Catahoula and Concordia Parishes, 32–33 35­ (1936); LA. Dep’t of Pub. Works, Catahoula Lake Area Report, 3–5 (1954)).

[26] Id. at * 13.

[27] See generally State v. Placid Oil Co., 300 So. 2d 154 (La.1973).

[28] Crooks, 2016 WL 3197532, at *24.

[29] Id. at *25 (citing Nottolini v. Lasalle Nat’l Bank, 782 N.E.2d 980 (Ill. 2d Dist. 2003)).

[30] Id. (citing Cooper v. Sanitary Dist. No. 1, 19 N.W. 2d 619, 624 (Neb. 1945)).

[31] Id. (citing Schoeffler v. Drake Hunting Club, 919 So. 2d 822, 827 (La. Ct. App. 2006)).

[32] Id. at *26.

[33] Id. at *27.

[34] Id. at *41.

[35] Id. at *28­–31.

[36] Id. at *33.

[37] Id. at *31.

[38] Id. at *33.

[39] Id.

[40] Id. at *41.

[41] Id. at *45 (The total acreage shown combines the “lake plaintiffs” and the “swamp plaintiffs.”).

[42] Id.