Jessica Helfand | Projects

Land in Crisis: The Antelope Valley Story

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

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]yahoo.com.

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

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Social Good

Comments [14]

The California Water Atlas, published under Jerry Brown, tries to explain the geographic, social, and environmental aspects behind water in the state. It focuses on explaining background conditions and natural and engineered systems.

It's an impressive book, full of big, complex, but well-considered and well-presented information graphics. The AIGA Design Archives photo doesn't really explain the book - the piece is full of color.

It's also not the world's most accessible piece. It measures something like 20 in. x 16 in. And the State of California published it in an edition of a few thousand, so it's hard to find.
David Ramos

I hope someone takes up her project. It seems worthwhile to do so.

I always teach my students about Florence Nightingale's Rose Diagram and how she used it to persuade for more sanitary conditions in British Hospitals during the Crimean War. See image of diagram. I like when information design is meant to be as much persuasive as informative.
Dori Tunstall

While I sympathize with Ms. Willis, I wonder, how Native Americans would react to her protest. All of California was taken from them. When they resisted they were forced onto reservations or worse.
Michael Smith

I'm curious about the specific legal argument the public water supplier is making. Would Ms. Helfand or Ms. Willis to provide more information for all of the readers/designers here?

It's helpful to know both sides of an argument before consulting on any legal case.
Ben S.

California’s economy and very existence in many ways is ultimately based on:

- Water (access to it by cities, farms, down to individual unnatural green lawns)
- Land (real estate and access for development, which itself is often about access rights to water)
- Technology (boom and bust)

If any one is disturbed, and one or more is always disturbed, it's a mess.

Design might well be a way to help clarify and communicate the issues in this particular case. But it points to a deep problem, and I'm not sure that design can do anything about this underlying problem. There are simply far, far too many people living in Southern California--much of which is desert or near desert--and there is just not enough water to go around.
Rob Henning

I drink your milkshake! Isn't that essentially the issue here? If a farm starts pumping from their land, they're not just pumping "their" water, they're pulling water from the entire aquifer.

These kinds of restrictions on water rights are hardly unusual or unconstitutional. Did you know it's illegal to harvest rainwater in some states?

Also, I'm not a lawyer, but these sorts of water rights have been held up for a long time and I don't think they qualify as "adverse possession" which, according to wikipedia requires "exclusive use of the property." Groundwater is clearly not exclusive property if you think of the "I drink your milkshake" metaphor.

Also from wikipedia:
"Prior appropriation water rights, sometimes known as the "Colorado Doctrine" in reference to the U.S. Supreme Court case Wyoming v. Colorado, is a system of allocating water rights from a water source that is markedly different from Riparian water rights. Water law in the western United States generally follows the appropriation doctrine which developed due to the scarcity of water in that area.

The legal details vary from state to state; however, the general principle is that water rights are unconnected to land ownership, and can be sold or mortgaged like other property. The first person to use a quantity of water from a water source for a beneficial use has the right to continue to use that quantity of water for that purpose. Subsequent users can use the remaining water for their own beneficial purposes provided that they do not impinge on the rights of previous users."

For those who are interested in learning more about the nuts and bolts of the Antelope Valley Groundwater Adjucation, please go to www.avgroundwater.com, the Willis Class website. There is a link on our website to the court's webpage for the case, which shows all the parties involved, the pleadings in chronological order, exhibits. The court's webpage is very well thought out. The next hearing in the case is April 24, 2009 in Department 1 of the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse, directly to the east of the Music Center and catty-corner from Gehry's Disney Concert Hall. If you enter the courthouse from that side, you are on the correct floor. I will be present wearing a black teeshirt witih red letters that read PALTRY PARCEL PERSON. This hearing is historic. The judge stated on January 9, 2009 that he wasn't sure that in a groundwater adjudication that anyone was entitled to a jury trial. The arguments for and against a jury trial are being heard April 24th. So time is of the essence here. I believe that 90% of the water problem in the Antelope Valley can be solved through design. We don't have a scarcity of water so much as we have a scarcity of imagination. Anyone interested in helping may contact me at the address in Ms. Helfand's post. I didn't know the design community existed in an organized form until I saw Ms. Helfand's post. You can help. You really can.
Rebecca Lee Willis

Rebecca Lee Willis:

Do you believe that there IS enough water available in the greater Los Angeles/Southern California region--or for that matter, in the entire arid Southwest--to support the needs of all the people living there?

I'm really curious about this because everything I have read--and I'm by no means an expert on the matter--suggests to me that there is, in fact, a scarcity of water. And it is precisely that scarcity of water which results in conflicts such as the one you are involved in.
Rob Henning

From what I've read, and I'm no expert either, it's not the number of people living in Southern California, that is the problem. According to what I've read agriculture accounts for 80% of the state's water consumption.

A bigger problem may be the decision to grow water dependent crops in what is basically a desert. Of course trying to maintain green lawns and golf courses in an arid region doesn't help, but it doesn't appear to begin to compete with agriculture for total usage.

Greetings, All. I have not been able to read the blog because I am in the process of moving, looking for a job, and acting in my role as the Willis Class Representative. The hearing on whether or not Anyone in a groundwater adjudication is entitled to a jury trial commences tomorrow morning at 9:00 a.m. in Dept. 1 of Los Angeles Superior Court, 111 North Hill Street, Los Angeles, California. It's best to enter from the Grand Street side because the courtroom is on that floor. I will be commuting a total of six hours tomorrow to attend the hearing, will catch up with the blog when I come back to life Saturday morning. I can't find my Paltry Parcel Person teeshirt that I said I'd be wearing. For anyone planning to attend the hearing who wants to introduce themselves, I will be wearing black pants, a long-sleeved, black-and-white crocheted top, black socks and blue shoes. The blue shoes are because I can't find my black ones. It's like losing your Elvis lamp. You know it hasn't left the building, but you're not sure which room it's secluding itself in. I'm 61 years old and I'm short, but my lawyer is very tall. Nothing much left to describe. I am very grateful for everyone's interest in our plight here. I will respond fully and thoughtfully Saturday after I read through the blog. Becky
Rebecca Lee Willis

Greetings, All. We are making headway in the Antelope Valley Groundwater Adjudication, all to the good of the Willis Class. The court has set up a more parsed schedule of trial phasing: first, determining just what is the safe yield of the basin; then whether or not "overdraft" (too much pumping) has occurred. If the court finds no overdraft has occurred, then the County has no basis on which to found their claims for adverse possession. The judge agrees that the issue of adverse possession must involve a jury trial. I was ecstatic at that finding by the court, bought a ticket to see Joshua Bell at the Disney Hall that evening. To be mired in strife in this action for four years and then to see a tiny window open, well, yikes, it feels wonderful. But we still have a ways to go.

I'd like to address some of the comments on the blog: 1) "too many people" is an erroneous social construction based on agricultural traditions. A person's sense of adequate space is culturally dependent and varies. Children burdened with inadequate physical and social space learn to make space in their heads. Gustavo Dudamel is all over this. He wants that space to be filled with classical music. Gustavo is totally committed to saving the lives of children through the power of music education. Gustavo is on his way, and we are very happy about that in L.A. Google "Sistema," folks. You're in for a treat. As to Native Americans and water rights and wrongs, there is nothing we can do to change the past. We can only respect the suffering of those who went before us, and make sure we are not susceptible to perpetrating the horrors that were perpetrated in the past. At present, the First People of California have exclusive gaming privileges on their land. Indian Gaming is a thriving business. I'm proud of the people who made the effort to make amends. As to California water law, The Book to read is Wells A. Hutchins: The California Law of Water Rights. But I have to warn you. California water law was written under the Golden Rule: He who had the gold wrote the rules. What's confusing is that He who had the gold differed from time to time. The statement that water rights in California are unconnected to land ownership is just plain in error. I have two lawyers working this subject within the groundwater adjudication. They're all over it. Water availability: oh, yes, there's plenty of water if we're smart about how we use it. We have to adapt. The farmers don't want to have to adapt, are fighting a rear-guard action based on a dangerously inaccurate and outmoded paradigm. That's where the design community is so helpful. we need new designs and new objects from the design community. Becky
Rebecca Lee Willis

Design could well be a way to help clarify and communicate the issues in this particular case. It's certainly something to think about in more detail.

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