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AquAlliance v. United States Bureau of Reclamation

United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit

May 9, 2017

AquAlliance, Appellant
v.
United States Bureau of Reclamation, Appellee

          Argued Date: October 17, 2016

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:14-cv-01018)

          Matt Kenna argued the cause and filed the briefs for appellant.

          Carl 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.

          OPINION

          Millett, Circuit Judge

         There may be "water, water, everywhere, " but nary a water well to be found.[1] 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 permissible.

         I

         A

         Congress 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. Cir. 2015).

         At 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. § 552(b)(9).

         B

         The 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).

         Plaintiff 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 ...


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