Federal government records, including business records submitted to the government, are subject to disclosure under the federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). However, FOIA exempts nine categories of government records from this disclosure obligation. A May 9 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in AquAlliance v. U.S. Bureau of Reclamation discusses the scope of Exemption 9. Exemption 9 provides that there is no duty to disclose “geological and geophysical information, data, including maps, concerning wells.”

AquAlliance is identified as a non-profit organization concerned with protecting the Northern California ecosystem and watersheds. The Department of Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation “oversees water resource management across the United States.” The Bureau of Reclamation’s Central Valley Project is described as the “largest federal water management project in the country,” serving 20 million people and 7 million acres of farm land.

AquAlliance, concerned about the impact of water transfer applications routinely processed by the Bureau of Reclamation, filed a FOIA request seeking all documents related to water transfer applications filed in 2013 and 2014. The Bureau of Reclamation largely complied, but withheld or redacted information relating to water-well construction, completion, depth, and location.

AquAlliance then filed an FOIA action in the District Court. The District Courtgranted the Government’s motion for summary judgment, based on its reading of the plaint text of Exemption 9. The Court of Appeals affirmed the ruling, rejecting AquAlliance ’s contention that this exemption, if properly understood, only protected oil and gas well information.