Louisiana Sues Corps Over GIWW Channel Width

Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry announced February 9 that he, on behalf of the state of Louisiana, is suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for failing to maintain the proper channel width on the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway (GIWW) and for the role that has played in contributing to coastal erosion in the state.

“The decline of Louisiana’s coastline over the past 50 years has been a constant issue for Louisiana,” Landry said in a statement. “Unfortunately, the creation of the Intracoastal Waterway by the Corps has exacerbated the problem.”

The lawsuit, which names the state of Louisiana as plaintiff and the United States of America as defendant, specifically alleges that the Corps “has breached its legal duty to the plaintiff by failing to confine the waterway in question to the parcel of ground upon which Defendant holds its servitude.”

Louisiana filed the suit as property owner of the White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area, located along the GIWW about halfway between Lafayette and Lake Charles. The lawsuit names a servitude agreement dated February 26, 1928, which limits the servitude to 300 feet wide. The state took ownership of the White Lake property on July 8, 2002, and the terms of the title transfer granted Louisiana rights of all servitudes pertaining to the property.

Sign up for Waterway Journal's weekly newsletter.Our weekly newsletter delivers the latest inland marine news straight to your inbox including breaking news, our exclusive columns and much more.

The lawsuit states it’s the United States of America’s “nondiscretionary legal obligation” to maintain the waterway within the 300-foot area mentioned in the servitude agreement. The GIWW is actually authorized to a width of 125 feet, and yet, according to the lawsuit, in places “the width of the waterway now exceeds 670 feet, instead of the 300 feet provided by the servitude, and appears to be continually growing larger.”

The attorney general’s announcement claims the “Intracoastal Waterway has contributed to land loss, saltwater intrusion and coastal erosion; and the purpose of the lawsuit is to address that.”

The suit specifically calls for “a mandatory and prohibitory injunction ordering the Defendant to remove the encroachment from the areas of the White Lake Property over which there is no servitude.” In other words, the state wants the Corps to restore the GIWW in the area of White Lake Wetlands Conservation Area to its authorized width of 125 feet.

In a time when Louisiana is hoping the Corps will recommend deepening the Lower Mississippi River to 50 feet and fast-track a billion-dollar sediment diversion project, Landry made clear that, in this case at least, the Corps is the problem for Louisiana and not a coastal protection partner.

“The failure of the Corps to maintain and preserve the servitude has caused thousands of acres of land along our coast to be lost,” Landry said in a statement. “The Corps is in direct violation of their servitude agreement. Our lawsuit demands that the Corps of Engineers be enjoined from any further violations of its servitude and restore the damage caused by those violations.”

U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, who represents Louisiana’s 6th congressional district, joined Landry in announcing the lawsuit and offered his wholehearted endorsement.

“It is the right thing to do, and this enforcement is long overdue,” Graves said. “Our own federal government should be protecting our rights, not treading on them. The bottom line is that if this were happening in California, New York, Florida or Illinois, it would have been stopped and restored decades ago. We cannot stand idle and allow Louisiana to be treated any differently.”

Graves, who serves on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and chairs the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment, has been a longtime outspoken critic of the Corps.

“This is the same Corps of Engineers that enforces rules and files suit against Americans when they damage or destroy wetlands,” Graves said. “It is about time that they be held accountable to the same rules. Our wetlands, our lands and our environment are no less important. This lawsuit ensures that the hypocrisy ends now.”

Announcement of the lawsuit carried no statement from Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, in part because the governor said he had no prior knowledge of the suit before it was filed.

“The attorney general did not consult with the governor or the Coastal Restoration and Protection Authority on his lawsuit,” a February 9 statement from the governor’s office said. “It’s unfortunate that the agency charged with developing strategies for dealing with coastal wetlands was not consulted at all. While coastal restoration is a top priority for Gov. Edwards, as evidenced by the significant work we have done over the last two years to expedite projects, we will review the lawsuit once the language is provided to us and determine the best path forward for the state.”

René Poche, public affairs specialist for the New Orleans Engineer District, said the Corps cannot comment on pending litigation.

While the lawsuit alleges erosion due to the GIWW, Louisiana has nonetheless benefitted from the successes of the waterway since its completion in 1949. According to Jim Stark, president of the Gulf Intracoastal Canal Association (GICA), a trade organization representing some 200 members, in 2016 alone, towboats and barges moved some 75 million tons of cargo through the Louisiana stretch of the GIWW. Those cargoes were valued at about $55 billion, Stark said.

“The barge industry, and others involved in this vital commerce linkage to Gulf Coast ports and the inland rivers system, supports tens of thousands of Louisiana jobs,” Stark said. “These jobs are not only related to the transportation of these commodities, but also associated with the plants and industries which depend on those commodities for manufacturing, refining and the production of goods for the American consumer.”

Stark said, while he will monitor the lawsuit, he fully expects the waterway to be operated and maintained as usual while Louisiana and the Corps resolve the servitude issue.