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AquAlliance v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, No. 14-1018, 2015 WL 5998949 (D.D.C. October 14, 2015) (Jackson, J.)


AquAlliance v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, No. 14-1018, 2015 WL 5998949 (D.D.C. October 14, 2015) (Jackson, J.)

Re: Request for records concerning permits for water transfers in California in 2013 and 2014

Disposition: Granting in part and denying in part defendant's motion for summary judgment; granting in part and denying in part plaintiff's motion for summary judgment

  • Exemption 9:  "[The] Court will take Congress at its word–i.e., it will read Exemption 9 as excluding [from the FOIA's disclosure requirements] 'geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells' regardless of type–and it thereby declines Plaintiff's invitation to become the first court ever to read the proposed water-versus-oil restriction into the Exemption 9."  The court relates that "[plaintiff] argues that [the withheld] information is outside the scope of the exemption."  The court finds that "Exemption 9 states simply that the FOIA's disclosure requirements do not apply to 'geological and geophysical information and data, including maps, concerning wells.'"  "The text is plain and unambiguous; on its face, no distinction is drawn among types of wells, and the text provides no reason to think that water wells would be excluded from the exemption's purview."  Moreover, the court relates that "[plaintiff] maintains that, even if Exemption 9 covers water wells, it does not protect reports detailing the construction of water wells and maps that depict well locations, such as those the Bureau has withheld here."  The court finds that "[a]lthough the statutory reference to 'data' suggests information of a scientific or technical nature, Exemption 9 covers a broader swath of material, given that it also expressly refers to 'geological and geophysical information' generally."
  • Exemption 6:  "[The] Court concludes that there is no dispute of material fact as to the redactions the Bureau has made with respect to Exemption 6 because [plaintiff] has demonstrated that the public interest in disclosure outweighs the limited privacy interests here."  First, "[the] Court concludes that a greater than de minimis privacy interest is at stake here, albeit not a particularly substantial one."  The court explains that, "[a]s to the characteristic revealed, the individuals affected would merely be identified as having participated in a water transfer program, having participated in a real water determination, or owning a water well; therefore, '[n]one of the information at issue in this case is stigmatizing, embarrassing[,] or dangerous[.]'"  Turning to the public interest, the court relates that plaintiff "details the organization's need to 'track[ ] ownership' of the land and the wells in order 'to determine if the groundwater pumpers are moving any groundwater to other land they own'; to alert counties if their local water is being removed (in violation of local law); and to determine whether owners are participating in multiple water programs, which 'could bear on whether the[ir] [permit] applications should be granted[.]'"  The court finds that "the record evidence regarding how [plaintiff] intends to utilize the names and addresses that the Bureau has redacted indicates that such information would contribute to 'the basic purpose of the [FOIA][:] to open agency action to the light of public scrutiny.'"
Court Decision Topic(s)
District Court opinions
Exemption 6
Exemption 9
Updated January 10, 2022