Two Rods and a ‘Sixth Sense’: In Drought, Water Witches are Swamped

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Amid California’s drought, hopeless landowners and managers are turning to those who signifier an ancient, disputed method for locating water.

Rob Thompson dowsing for h2o  astatine  a vineyard successful  Napa Valley connected  Monday.
Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Livia Albeck-Ripka

July 17, 2021, 3:00 a.m. ET

CALISTOGA, Calif. — In a vineyard flanked by scorched hills and charcoal trees, Rob Thompson gripped 2 stainless alloy rods, began rotating successful a ellipse and counted nether his breath.

Then helium said helium had recovered it — water, hundreds of feet beneath the parched ground.

“This is truly good,” said Mr. Thompson, 53, scratching an ‘X’ into the ashen ungraded with his shoe. “This is simply a heavy one: 750 feet, 55 to 60 gallons a minute.” He added, “This 1 I tin feel.”

Mr. Thompson is simply a h2o witch.

He claims that helium tin find streams of h2o successful the fractures successful the earth’s bedrock, utilizing 2 L-shaped rods that unneurotic lucifer an old-fashioned tv antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, conscionable a two-hour thrust northbound of the nation’s exertion superior of Silicon Valley, the water-seeking services of a antheral relying connected 2 three-foot rods and a hunch are successful demand.

“This is my busiest I deliberation I’ve ever been successful my life,” said Mr. Thompson, a third-generation h2o huntsman with silvering hairsbreadth and the lumbering gait of a bear. He had been a co-owner of 1 of Northern California’s largest well-drilling companies, but since gave that up and present searches for h2o afloat time.


Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

His engaged docket is simply a motion of the desperation of ranchers, vineyard owners and onshore managers arsenic California reels from a crippling drought that has depleted aquifers, shrunken crops and forced immoderate farmers to merchantability disconnected their h2o rights.

The mystical method of locating caller groundwater sources is thought to person archetypal travel into vogue successful Europe successful the Middle Ages. The method is known arsenic dowsing oregon divining, oregon adjacent doodlebugging, and those who signifier it are called h2o dowsers oregon h2o witches — a operation that whitethorn person originated from the practice being deemed witchcraft successful the 17th century.

The National Ground Water Association, a radical of experts, including hydrogeologists, that promotes liable h2o use, describes h2o witching arsenic “totally without technological merit.” Some California farmers who wage for the service, however, accidental it often provides a cheaper alternate to accepted methods, specified arsenic hiring a geologist oregon prospector.

The American Society of Dowsers says it has astir 2,000 members, respective of whom are moving h2o witches. Other dowsers assertion they tin find treasures, mislaid objects, alien beingness forms and accent successful the body. Some dowsers dangle a Buddha pendant supra a printed representation oregon a laptop surface to find what they are looking for. Mr. Thompson — who besides dowses oil, state and minerals — says erstwhile helium steps implicit groundwater, the vigor surrounding him changes, causing an involuntary muscular twitch wrong him that makes his rods cross.


Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times


Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

He and immoderate others who h2o dowse are blue-collar workers profoundly acquainted with farming, yet whose beliefs successful the “sixth sense” oregon “subconscious happening” of witching are decidedly much New Age than agricultural. Many accidental the cognition of their trade has been passed down to them by their elders, and they revere the ancientness of the practice, adjacent if it sometimes earns them a sideward glance.

“People deliberation you’re crazy,” said Larry Bird, 77, a Sacramento-based dowser who learned the method from his grandfather, a melon seller from Pawnee, Okla. He described the sensation of being adjacent to h2o arsenic being akin to a magnetic field. “It leaves maine hot,” helium said. “Just similar if you abbreviated a battery.”

Sharry Hope, a longtime dowser based successful Oroville, Calif., says lasting implicit h2o leaves her with a “chilling sensation.” Ms. Hope claims she learned 1 of the techniques she uses to find h2o connected maps from a erstwhile subject officer: She swings a pendulum until it stops and points toward a “water vein,” Ms. Hope said. “I conscionable people it with a Sharpie.”

Though scientists and groundwater experts marque wide that the dowsers’ methods are unscientific and magnitude to a benignant of hocus-pocus, dozens of vineyards successful the affluent winemaking regions of California person hired them to find h2o connected their lands.

One institution that manages vineyards successful Napa Valley has hired dowsers crossed astir each of the much than 70 vineyards it manages. “I haven’t ever utilized a geologist to find water,” said Johnnie White, the operations manager of the company, Piña Vineyard Management.

The proprietor of different institution said Mr. Thompson had successfully located wells connected respective properties. “Seeing is believing, right?” said Doug Hill, who runs Hill Family Estate, which manages respective vineyards and a winery successful Napa Valley.


Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Fifty of California’s 58 counties are under exigency drought declarations. Water holders person been ordered to stop drafting their allotments from rivers. On farms and vineyards, a surge successful good drilling and accrued reliance connected those wells has helped to deplete groundwater, leaving immoderate with nary prime but to motortruck successful the precious resource. A hold database for a driller tin beryllium respective months to a year, and the spread costs tens of thousands of dollars.

Hydrogeologists usage a operation of outer imagery, geology, drilling data, geophysical instruments and different hydrologic tools to measure h2o sources, said Timothy Parker, a Sacramento-based groundwater absorption consultant, and hydrogeologist. “Compared to dowsing, which is simply a idiosyncratic with a stick,” helium added.

It was possible, Mr. Parker and different experts said, that witches got lucky, due to the fact that it is not hard to find h2o successful galore parts of California. Dowsers similar Mr. Thompson with years of acquisition successful the manufacture would besides person developed a familiarity with the landscape, they added.

“There are economical issues, idiosyncratic beliefs and desperation factors going into the determination to effort dowsing,” Ben Frech, a spokesperson for the National Ground Water Association, said successful an email. While the radical understood that despair could pb to “exploring each options,” ultimately, helium said, the method was a discarded of clip and money.


Credit...Jim Wilson/The New York Times

On Monday successful Napa Valley, Mr. Thompson leaned retired of the rider broadside of a four-wheeled all-terrain conveyance to scope retired his assignment: locating caller h2o connected a 155-acre vineyard with 2 adust wells, and others that were underperforming.

Responding to critics of h2o dowsing, helium said, “I conscionable laughter astatine them. They don’t cognize the facts.” He added, “I’m seldom wrong.”

Choking particulate billowed from beneath the wheels. Mr. Thompson, shades down, divining rods successful hand, maintained a chill demeanor. He planned to complaint astatine slightest $1,400 for his visit. A geologist had quoted the aforesaid tract astatine a minimum of $6,500.

He stepped retired of the A.T.V. and placed the rods perpendicular to the world to “ground out” — a process helium says helps dispel his energy. Then helium leaned back, his caput cocked successful concentration, and held the rods retired successful beforehand of him, turning dilatory until they crossed.

“Yeah, it’s close down here,” helium said.

Up the charred elevation betwixt 2 rows of vines razed by past year’s wildfires but precocious replanted, Mr. Thompson’s rods crossed again. He said helium was definite that helium had recovered a root that was “a keeper.”

His woman pushed a involvement marked with a reddish ribbon and the words “WELL 9” into the crumbling earth. With a clank, clank, clank, Mr. Thompson secured it with a hammer.

He carried a hand-held GPS instrumentality truthful helium could supply a topographic representation with his h2o sites to his clients. But his different methods and tools were each low-tech: bronze and stainless alloy rods, a bullet-shaped pendulum connected a portion of tattered string.

“Those Silicon people,” helium added, “still prosecute me.”

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