(CN) - The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation improperly withheld information on water transfers in drought-ridden California by refusing to answer an environmental group's Freedom of Information Act request, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
AquAlliance, which is "dedicated to defending Northern California waters," successfully argued that the bureau improperly claimed an FOIA exemption by withholding names and addresses of certain well owners participating in water transfers in the Sacramento River watershed.
U.S. District Judge Ketanji Jackson found there is no privacy issue at stake and that the bureau cannot keep the names of well owners secret.
"Indeed, the bureau offers nothing more than conclusory allegations as to the existence of a substantial privacy interest - it cites no cases on this issue," Jackson wrote.
The bureau argued that the group might use the well owners' information to contact them about the water transfers in an attempt to "proselytize."
But AquAlliance told Jackson the information will be used only to determine whether well owners are illegally pumping groundwater, against drought orders, and moving it.
"Exemption 6 [in the Freedom of Information Act] does not justify the bureau's redaction of the names and addresses of various participants in water transfer programs, participants in real water valuations and well owners because AquAlliance has demonstrated that the public's interest in the disclosure of this information outweighs the privacy interest at stake," Jackson ruled.
Jackson found in the bureau's favor on its use of a separate exemption, and allowed it to withhold "geophysical information" about the wells, such as their depth and types. She struck AquAlliance's claim that the bureau wrongfully shielded specific well information under Exemption 9, finding that water well locations are under the same protections as oil 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," Jackson found.
AquAlliance argued that under Exemption 9 only oil and gas wells were protected and that the exemption is solely meant to prevent speculators from gaining the location of profitable wells.
Jackson disagreed, and reiterated that not a single court has interpreted the exemption similarly to plaintiffs.
On Tuesday, AquAlliance sought a writ of mandate in Sacramento Superior Court, claiming the state regulator, the California Department of Water Resources, failed to comply with a California Public Records Act request.
AquAlliance could not be reached after hours Thursday. It is represented by Matt Kenna of Durango, Colo.
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