Federal authorities will not have to disclose the location, construction or depth of California water wells to an environmental group under a recent federal court ruling.
However, the decision does require the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to turn over the names and addresses of the well owners and water transfer participants to AquAlliance, which advocates for “hydrological health” in Northern California.
In 2013, AquAlliance made a wide-ranging Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to water transfers in the region, which included geological data about water wells.
The federal government released much of the information to the environmental group but withheld the well data under FOIA exemptions that protect privacy interests.
AquAlliance then filed a legal complaint against the Bureau of Reclamation, claiming that the agency improperly applied those exceptions.
U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington, D.C., has rejected some of the group’s arguments while agreeing with others.
The plaintiff claimed that FOIA privacy exemptions for geological well data only applied to oil and gas wells, but Jackson dismissed this argument, holding that water is also a precious and limited resource.
Jackson also rejected the claim that turning over geological well data wouldn’t improperly reveal “proprietary technical or scientific secrets” and thus must be disclosed, contravening a previous federal court decision from South Dakota.
On the other hand, the judge found that the bureau does have to disclose names and addresses because this information isn’t “stigmatizing, embarrassing or dangerous” for well owners and people who participate in water transfers.
The government argued that turning over the names and addresses would not serve the public interest but would simply allow AquAlliance to “proselytize” its environmental message, while the environmental group countered that it needed the information to ensure water isn’t moved unlawfully.
Jackson sided with AquAlliance on this question, finding that the bureau “neither acknowledges these public benefits of disclosure, nor articulates how these benefits are outweighed by the relatively weak privacy interests at stake.”