Pacific Swell

Southern California environment news and trends

Muddy waters, not McKinley Morganfield

New Orleans specializes in muddy waters.

I was living there, covering a “Night Out Against Crime” for my peeps at the brilliant, beautiful, and sadly deceased Day to Day when I met Matt McBride. He was at the Broadmoor night out. Matt is an engineer, a husband, a devoted dog dad, and a tireless advocate for his former neighborhood. He pointed out that sometimes, all I had to do was ask for the information I wanted.

One of the reasons I really understood that I could ask for information comes from what is also one of my favorite ancient concepts of law: the public trust doctrine. I was raised in California law; when I was small, my dad and my grandfather explained it to me, I recall very clearly, in a blue dining room in St. Francis Wood in San Francisco, behind lace curtains like a good Irish house should have. My grandfather said it came from Justinian. I was about 7; I think I found one of his cases in his law reporters a dozen years before I actually learned anything else about who Justinian was.

(In California, Mono Lake resurrected the common law principle. But we’ve got Article II, section 10, of the state constitution, that smudges up water rights with “reasonable and beneficial use.” And of course coastal access.)

Louisiana’s public trust doctrine, part of it anyway, relates to levees, thanks to Thomas Jefferson. I recall, vaguely, under other deadlines, now, that one guy wanted to limit everyone’s ability to promenade atop the levee past his land. (I can hear my Mid-City friends saying, that’s Uptown for you.) Walking along the levee is one way people share space in New Orleans, and in so doing, take part, in everything. It’s damn hard not to. And it’s far easier to feel you’ve got a stake in something that you actually show up for.

I’ll admit that I paraded one Mardi Gras as the wetlands – blue wig for water, green dress, gators and muck and birds and mangroves. And when I did I engaged in a mock chase with some mock Army Corps guys. But I also ate bowls of gumbo and drank beers alongside them at Liuzza’s. And I know that the way people outside New Orleans can understand it loses all nuance.

Maybe we should ask for as much information as we can get. We must, at the same time, try to understand what all that information means. The first question I always get is, “who’s to blame?” I think it’s the last answer we’ll actually get. So far, in this story of these pumps, there’s more than one answer.

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