Llano Del Rio Commune, Antelope Valley, California. Photography by Matt Jalbert.
"If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water."
Loran Eisely, The Immense Journey, 1957
Loran Eisely, The Immense Journey, 1957
Under California law, property owners have a right to pump and use what's commonly known as groundwater, or water just beneath the surface of their land. But in California's Antelope Valley, an approximately 2,000 square mile desert ecosystem just north of the San Gabriel Mountains, the naturally available supply of water in the basin may not be adequate to satisfy its residents' needs.
Here's the real problem: public water suppliers have sued homeowners in this region, claiming that their historical pumping gives them superior water rights. Can the County of Los Angeles claim adverse possession, and actually rescind residents' rights to their own water? One plaintiff is fighting for the rights of landowners who are currently not pumping from the aquifer, and has mounted a class action suit in order to do so.
She also believes that design can help solve the problem. Perhaps one of our readers will agree. Below is the letter which arrived, unsolicited, in my mailbox this morning. To make or not to make a volvelle hardly the issue: what is at stake is the degree to which designers can lend their ingenuity to find a way to cut through this mess. And, in so doing, to help restore water to its rightful recipients.
Those interested can contact the plaintiff here: gulchwoman[at]
Dear Ms. Helfand,
I am writing to ask for your help. Last year, for reasons unrelated to the issue I'm writing you about this evening, I purchased your book "Reinventing the Wheel," and learned about volvelles. Fascinating, of course.
I am Rebecca Lee Willis and I represent approximately 80,000 landowners in the Antelope Valley Groundwater Adjudication. The land mass I represent in the aquifer is second only to that of Edwards Air Force Base. To bring you up to speed as fast as I can, if you will remember or have seen the movie Chinatown with Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway, the situation here is Chinatown all over again. The County of Los Angeles is attempting to take away our groundwater rights by adverse possession, a position which I believe is immoral on its face and unconstitutional.
I first learned of this lawsuit in the spring of 2005, and ever since then have been fighting for the rights of landowners who are currently not pumping from the aquifer. I was certified as the class rep by the court in September 2007. We forced the County to send out class notices either at the very end of 2008 or the very beginning of 2009 [yes, I know, not much of a real spread there], and last week, for the first time ever, I was able to attend the "principals only" meeting solely because I am now unemployed, having been RIF'd from my job as a legal secretary for an international law firm in February. The County deliberately holds these "principals only" meetings at a time and place inconvenient to the thousands of commuters who commute from the Antelope Valley to other parts of the Los Angeles area. I worked in downtown Los Angeles for nine years, commuted there from the Antelope Valley for four years, a commute of two hours each way, a total commuting time of 20 hours a week. Shudder if you must, but please keep in mind that thousands of people endure this commute to keep themselves and their families afloat financially.
At last Wednesday's meeting, one of the water purveyors wanted to see a matrix of the arguments of parties claiming a right to the groundwater. I immediately thought of you and volvelles and thought that a volvelle would present the arguments better than a matrix. Imagine a wheel (not hard for you!) with the groundwater as the Hub and the lines of reasoning and/or legal principles by which different parties think they are entitled to it as the Spokes of the wheel, and the various parties claiming those rights positioned on the circumference of the wheel, very much like a color wheel or a Venn diagram. When the water purveyor requested the matrix, I suggested that a volvelle would be a better way to present the information, more spatial economy, etc., etc. and I volunteered to contact you to see if, given the matrix, you could make a volvelle from the matrix in order to present the information in a more spatially compact form.
The "unjust taking" the County of Los Angeles is attempting is enormous, poorly understood by the few people in the general public who know about it, and for the most part, unknown by the general public but for my pressuring the County through the class action within the adjudication. Please look at the list of parties. Thus far, the County has been very successful in keeping this case out of public view. The Los Angeles Times does not report on it despite my having asked them to do so, the local paper reports it inaccurately — the list of wrongs goes on and on.
Would you be so kind as to look at the matrix once my attorneys have vetted its accuracy and decide whether or not the information would be better presented in a volvelle? And if you can think of others who can help us if you cannot, would you be so kind as to refer me to them? Time is of the essence.
Thanks for considering my request.
Rebecca Lee Willis