Dowsers, sometimes known as ‘water witches,’ are in high demand in drought-stricken California, where four dry years find farmers and vintners taking desperate measures
Mary Catherine O’Connor
Monday 15 September 2014 07.00 BST
Sharron Hope has been a dowser since 1997. Markedly cheaper than hiring a hydrogeologist – which can cost as much as $50,000 – Hope OFFERS her services for around $500 a consultation. Video: Mary Catherine O’Connor
Outside of a farmhouse on a 1,800-acre organic dairy farm near Oroville, California, Sharron Hope bends over a printout of a Google Earth map, holding a small jade Buddha pendant. The map shows a small section of the farm to the east, and Hope is hunting for water. As the pendant swings, she notes a subtle change in motion that, she says, indicates she has found some.
Is there any significance to the jade? No, she says, I just like it. Plus, she adds, “I figure Buddha’s gotta know.”
Hope is a water dowser, or someone who uses intuition, energy VIBRATIONS and divining rods or pendulums to mark the best spots for wells.
As California rounds the corner towards a four-year historic drought, many farmers and vintners have become completely reliant on groundwater. After divvying surface water allotments to satisfy urban, ecosystem and industrial needs, farmers in many parts of the state received little or no irrigation water from state agencies this year. In a normal year, allotments would cover roughly two-thirds of farmers’ needs.
Sharron Hope, a water dowser in California, uses a jade pendant to locate underground water on a map. Photograph: Mary Catherine O’Connor
Under these severe drought conditions, the success or failure of a well can mean the success or failure of a farm or vineyard, so before the drill bit hits the dirt, landowners need an educated guess as to where to find the most productive well site on their property. To get that, they can call in a professional hydrogeologist, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars – or they can drop a fraction of the cost on a dowser, such as Hope.
Despite a distinct lack of empirical evidence regarding dowsers’ efficacy, demand is high and dowsers’ phones are ringing off the hook.
“I’ve gotten far more calls this year from farmers looking for a water dowser than in most years,” says Sacramento-based Donna Alhers, who heads the Sierra Dowsers, a chapter of the American Society of Dowsers.
Water dowsers from around the state are also seeing a spike in demand. “I’m getting a lot of calls from people whose wells have run dry,” Hope says.
Where did dowsing come from?
The exact origins of dowsing are murky, but its roots can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages. The practice, sometimes used by miners and fortune seekers, was reportedly condemned in the 16th century as the work of the devil.
Today, dowsers hail from one of two camps. Some have agrarian backgrounds, and learned the practice from ancestors who used it to locate good sites for wells on their own or their neighbors’ farms. The second group hails from the New Age movement and tend to be devotees of a wide range of mystical practices and “energy work”.
Traditionally, dowsing has been used not just to find groundwater, but also minerals and natural gas. Many dowsers claim they can dowse anything, from lost items or pets to criminals on the lam. You name it, they say they can divine it.
Hope began dowsing for water in 1977 after learning about the practice from Walter Woods, a science teacher at Butte College, where she was a STUDENT. Woods had learned dowsing from his father, a farmer, and eventually became a well-known authority on dowsing. He authored a widely read dowsing primer, Letter to Robin, and served as president of the American Society of Dowsers.
Woods taught Hope to scan for signs of groundwater by observing the landscape and looking for signs like deer trails. “Deer have magnetite in their pineal gland [an endocrine gland in the brain]. As water moves underground, electrons are stripped out and move to the surface,” Hope says. “Deer can sense it and tend to walk along that vein of underground water toward a spring.” Dowsing is based on the premise that humans can tap into that energy, too, using instruments such as branches and pendulums.
Energy marks the spot
After Hope finishes with the map, she heads out to the spots she has marked, walking the land and searching for very faint energy markings over the landscape, which she’ll use more talismans to locate.
She begins a general scan of the area with a forked pine branch, holding the ends in her hands and sweeping it through the air. Despite scientific evidence, Hope believes that the branch she holds channels the energy emitted by submerged water. Once she homes in on the most promising region (which matches, as it turns out, the area she had marked on the map) she TRADES the branch for what are known in the dowsing world as “L-rods”, two long metal bars with a short handle and long extension, forming an L.
Sharron Hope works as a dowser in California’s CENTRAL VALLEY. Here she uses a pine branch to lead her to to a potential well site. Photograph: Mary Catherine O’Connor
Hope holds these in front of her, with her elbows at 90 degrees, and walks slowly up – and then laterally along – the rise. As the long ends of the bars begin to fall away from each other, she stops.
The energy moving up from the groundwater, she says, creates a field that L-rods respond to. This, she says, marks the edge of the underground stream. She then traverses the hillside, down slope, and stops again when the bars cross in front of her. This, she explains, marks the spot where two veins of groundwater cross over each other, making it a potentially very productive well site.
“I have goosebumps,” Hope says with a smile. “I feel the energy moving up from the ground.”
Although Hope and other dowsers often refer to underground veins and streams, USGS hydrologist Ralph Health, in a highly cited report on groundwater basics, says the vast majority of groundwater is found in relatively still aquifers. Swiftly moving streams are quite rare.
Water, water everywhere
Out in the field, Hope locates three possible well sites in roughly 30 minutes. She decides that the third is the best option, even though she doesn’t think it has the strongest flow rate, because it is relatively shallow at 200 feet (about 61 meters) below ground and is the most accessible and FLAT option. Daley stakes the spot and the dowsing is done. Daley is now awaiting drilling permits, and once those come through, she’ll call in a local driller.
“I have about 90% accuracy,” Hope claims, meaning that 90% of the sites she recommends produce water.
This actually isn’t that surprising, hydrogeologists say. “Dowsers may seem convincing, but when [their practice is] exposed to scientific review, groundwater is very prevalent, so it’s hard to miss it when you drill a well,” says Ted Johnson, chief hydrogeologist for the Water Replenishment District of Southern California and president of the board of the Groundwater Resources Association of California. “When you use science to site a well, you can test for quality, depth and how long [the flow] will last.”
To site a well, hydrogeologists will review driller well logs from the Department of Water Resources and geologic maps that show areas of alluvial soils, under which groundwater is most likely to accumulate. To really zero in on well sites, they drill a test well, which produces cuttings of the various strata. They then test for each layer’s ability to transport water. It’s a time-consuming and expensive process.
Because a landowner is unlikely to hire both a dowser and a hydrogeologist to see who finds the best-producing well (though that could make for some mildly entertaining reality television), the two groups coexist and generally ignore each other, aside from tossing verbal jabs.
“I’m a scientist and I’ve been trained on scientific principles, and that’s what I use [to locate groundwater],” says Tim Parker, a hydrogeologist and independent consultant based in Sacramento. “There’s no scientific evidence that dowsing is more effective than random chance.”
Of cash and crops
So why are so many farmers turning to dowsers instead of hydrologists? Part of it’s probably the money: dowsers might charge $1,000 (Hope charges most of her clients around $500, and less for a small residential well), while a big consulting firm costs $10,000 to $50,000, Johnson says. “All a farmer cares about is getting the groundwater,” he says.
But Cynthia Daley, who hired Sharron Hope to dowse for a well on her dairy farm, says it’s not about costs. “Dowsing is based on energy and it is something that the scientific community has not embraced, but I’m not arrogant enough to think science knows everything – and I am a scientist; I have a PhD,” she says.
Whether farmers and vintners are using dowsers merely as a result of their relative affordability or out of a strong belief in the practice is hard to, well, divine. What is clear is that the popularity of dowsing is growing, not just in the CENTRAL VALLEY, but throughout the state.
Daley, who has degrees in animal science with a doctorate in endocrinology, is a professor in the College of Agriculture at nearby California State University at Chico, where she runs an organic dairy program. She is developing an organic dairy operation on her property, which is why she’s drilling wells. “Everyone I know who has had wells put in around here has used dowsers.”
Many more wells are springing up. State agencies from counties around California are issuing twice – and sometimes three times as many – well drilling permits this summer than last summer, according to the Associated Press.
Keeping Marc Mondavi busy
Marc Mondavi, grandson of Napa Valley WINE pioneer Cesare Mondavi and a longtime dowser, says that he can’t keep up with the demand: “I’m doing anywhere from two to four projects a week and I’m backlogged, and drillers around here are backlogged for three to five months.”
Mondavi uses dowsing not only as a revenue stream, but also as a means of marketing his own brand, The Divining Rod. He doesn’t shy away from the name “water witch”, a term other dowsers consider pejorative. His daughter Alycia Mondavi even made a short promo VIDEO CALLED “My Dad is a Witch.”
He acknowledges it’s hard not to strike groundwater, but says that using his intuitive dowsing skills allows him to find the best spots, especially as the drought depletes the water table. “No matter where you drill, you might hit [a flow of] four gallons per minute,” he says. “In those areas maybe I can find eight to 10 gallons per minute.”
The dowsing divide might persist for decades to come, but there is plenty of indisputable evidence that groundwater is being overtaxed as the drought drags on. Amplifying the problem of groundwater scarcity, policy experts say, is a lack of regulation. That looks likely to change. Governor Brown is expected to sign one of three separate groundwater regulation bills currently sitting on his desk.
Some agriculture groups, including the Agriculture Council of California and Blue Diamond Growers, have rallied against the bills, saying they will drive up costs for already cash-strapped farmers and deny long-held water rights.
But Daley says groundwater is too important to remain unchecked. “We have to regulate it. It’s a very important resource.”
Until that happens, however, sun-baked farmers will keep digging for rain.
Mary Catherine O’Connor is an independent reporter and co-founder of Climate Confidential.
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