Legislature debating water bottom rights

Photo by Anna Thibodeaux - This fish attempted to jump onto Bonnet Carre' Spillway Road in flood waters.

A bill that would grant public access to tidal waterways located above private water bottoms was approved Tuesday by the state House of Representatives’ Committee on Civil Law and Procedure, making way for it to soon be heard on the House floor.

The water access bill, House Bill 391, was approved by the committee by a 5-3 vote.

“The anglers there that testified today did a great job, and convinced the committee to move the bill forward,” said David Cresson, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana. “Based on all the arguments, they did an impressive job … it was good to see the process in action.”

The bill, crafted by Rep. J. Kevin Pearson of Slidell, is the current focal point of a battle between those who argue certain waterways should fall under the ownership of property owners and those who argue those waterways should be free for all to use. For many of the state’s hunters and fishermen, the restricted waterways have presented problems, and the bill has been popular among them.

“I think what is clear after today is that this issue is very important to a whole lot of people,” Cresson said. “And it’s an issue that needs a positive resolution.”

Darryl Carpenter, board member of the Louisiana Sportsman Coalition, said he was all smiles after the vote was announced, but tempered that by noting it is just one victory in a much larger battle. He added that he was surprised to see it approved because “the opposition was great.”

“The legislators who showed up to the committee meeting were open to both sides and voted with their conscience,” Carpenter said, noting that there were committee members expected to oppose the bill who did not attend. “The public won today.”

He said there is a positive feeling that the bill can pass the House floor.

“Our intelligence is telling us as long as the public keeps up the push we have a good chance of getting it through the next stage,” he said, noting the strong attendance of anglers and others supporting the bill on Tuesday.

Carpenter was pleased, in part, because of his belief that the number of restricted waterways and ensuing conflicts will only grow if not addressed in some way. He noted state law dictates that if one allows something to be accessed by the public for a number of years, it is eventually considered to be public domain, providing further motivation for landowners to block off and restrict access to these waterways sooner rather than later.

“Water is supposed to be a public thing owned by nobody,” said Carpenter. “We have a conflicting set of laws. Landowners are claiming, ‘Well, it’s mine, … the water, the fish and the crabs belong to us … this is my private paradise, so stay off of it.’”

The bill is supported by B.A.S.S., which announced last year it would no longer schedule professional tournaments in Louisiana tidewaters where anglers risk being arrested for fishing in what appears to be and have historically been public waterways. State law does not currently require the waters be posted against trespassing. The organization has not held an event in Louisiana since 2012.

“B.A.S.S. doesn’t want to risk trespassing or anything like that, and they don’t want to come back until it’s resolved,” said Luling outdoorsman Bruce McDonald. “My opinion is that Louisiana residents are caught between a rock and a hard place. We’re no longer a Sportsman’s Paradise, we’re a rich man’s paradise. If someone can block off a waterway and have a court rule in his favor, than anyone can buy property and say you can’t use it and block it off.”

Added Carpenter, “Anglers are getting in trouble, getting disqualified and don’t know where to go, which goes into B.A.S.S. not coming back. They took it to Maryland, and their economic outlook on the tournament shows it brought in $25 million dollars, so it’s a significant loss.”

Committee members voting in favor of the bill were Reps. Raymond Crews, Gregory Cromer, Julie Emerson, Randal Gaines and Alan Seabaugh. Voting against were Reps. Robby Carter, Sam Jenkins and Gregory Miller.

Carpenter said he expects the bill to move to a full hearing “within a couple of weeks.”



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