Over the past 80 years, Louisiana has lost nearly 1,700 square miles of land, causing a former prairie-like coastline to become more like a real-life Atlantis. With another 1,750 square miles at risk of being lost over the next 50 years, researchers have warned us that South Louisiana’s environmental and economic future looks bleak.

But coastal erosion has also created another major problem in our state, one that has not gotten so much attention: the potential loss of private property and mineral rights.

As coastal lands erode, existing laws render private lands susceptible to state ownership, so that huge swaths of private property may be converted into public waterbottoms. The legal basis for this conversion lies largely in the Louisiana Civil Code (see La Civ. Code arts. 450, 499-506).

Under Louisiana law, when landowners lose their surface rights to the state, they also lose their rights to the underlying minerals.

At the individual level, this means that, virtually overnight, a landowner can lose his or her property rights, opportunities for land use, and revenue sources.

On a broad scale, this amounts to a potentially massive transfer of wealth from Louisiana’s private landowners – who currently own at least 80 percent of the land along the coast – to the state. In 1997, Marc Hebert explored this possibility in his article “Coastal Restoration Under CWPPRA and Property Rights Issues.”

In 2015, state representative Chris Leopold introduced a bill to address these challenges faced by private landowners. The bill proposed amendments to existing reclamation statutes that would have offered landowners new alternatives to retain their property interests. That bill, however, died in committee.

Without legislative enactments, the state could ultimately acquire ownership over much of the coast, at the expense of its own citizens.

Author: John T. Arnold