United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit
Date: October 17, 2016
from the United States District Court for the District of
Columbia (No. 1:14-cv-01018)
Kenna argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.
E. Ross, Assistant U.S. Attorney, argued the cause for
appellee. With him on the brief was R. Craig Lawrence,
Assistant U.S. Attorney.
Before: Brown, Millett and Wilkins, Circuit Judges.
Millett, Circuit Judge
may be "water, water, everywhere, " but nary a
water well to be found. AquAlliance wants to know where the wells
are, and it filed a Freedom of Information Act
("FOIA") request to find out. But the federal
government declined to say, invoking FOIA Exemption 9, which
permits the withholding of "geological and geophysical
information * * * concerning wells, " including
"maps." 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(9). The question
before us is whether Exemption 9 permits the government to
withhold information and maps disclosing the locations and
depth of certain water wells. We hold that Exemption 9 means
what it says and thus the government's withholding was
enacted FOIA to "permit access to official information
long shielded unnecessarily from public view."
Milner v. Department of the Navy, 562 U.S. 562, 565
(2011) (quoting EPA v. Mink, 410 U.S. 73, 80
(1973)). However Congress was also aware that
"legitimate governmental and private interests could be
harmed by release of certain types of information."
Department of Justice v. Julian, 486 U.S. 1, 8
(1988) (quoting Federal Bureau of Investigation v.
Abramson, 456 U.S. 615, 621 (1982)). FOIA thus
"balance[s] the public's need for access to official
information with the Government's need for
confidentiality." Weinberger v. Catholic Action of
Hawaii, 454 U.S. 139, 144 (1981). To that end, FOIA
exempts nine categories of records from the government's
otherwise broad duty of disclosure. See 5 U.S.C.
§ 552(b). While those exemptions "must be narrowly
construed, " Milner, 562 U.S. at 565 (quoting
Abramson, 456 U.S. at 630), courts still must
respect the balance that Congress struck and give the
exemptions the "meaningful reach and application"
that their plain text requires, John Doe Agency v. John
Doe Corp., 493 U.S. 146, 152 (1989); see also
DiBacco v. United States Army, 795 F.3d 178, 183 (D.C.
issue in this case is Exemption 9, which provides in full
that FOIA's general duty of disclosure has no application
to "geological and geophysical information and data,
including maps, concerning wells." 5 U.S.C. §
Department of Interior's Bureau of Reclamation oversees
water resource management across the United States. Among the
Bureau's many programs is the Central Valley Project, the
"largest federal water management project in the
country." Central Delta Water Agency v. Bureau of
Reclamation, 452 F.3d 1021, 1023 (9th Cir. 2006). The
Project comprises a series of dams, twenty-one reservoirs,
eleven hydropower plants, and 500 miles of canals and
aqueducts that distribute water south from the Sacramento and
San Joaquin Rivers in Northern California, which together
serve 20 million people and 7 million acres of farm land in
California. San Luis & Delta-Mendota Water Auth. v.
Jewell, 747 F.3d 581, 593- 594 (9th Cir. 2014). Water
districts within the Central Valley Project can sell their
river water to other districts further south if the Bureau
approves that water transfer. See Central Valley
Project Improvement Act, Pub. L. No. 102-575, § 3405(a),
106 Stat. 4600, 4709-4712 (1992).
AquAlliance is a non-profit organization dedicated to
protecting the Northern California ecosystem and watersheds.
Concerned about the potential adverse effects of water
transfers on the environment, AquAlliance has frequently