In Race to Find Water,
It's Science vs. 'Witchers'
By MALIA WOLLAN
August 3, 2007
NAPA, Calif. -- On a recent afternoon here at the Delectus Winery, Rob Thompson tapped two thin metal rods to the ground. Holding the rods in front of him, he slowly pirouetted, staring down into the dust. When the rods swiveled in his hands, he mumbled to his instruments: "40 gallons at 200 feet? 50 gallons at 210 feet? 30 gallons at 235 feet?"
Miles from a mainstream water supply, Mr. Thompson was looking for water to create a well for the winery. He says the rods help signal water, crossing when near what he calls "water veins." The rods, he says, move on their own. He typically will mark a water source, indicate how many feet below the surface it's located, and how many gallons per minute it's likely to yield. He says he gets all the information through intuition.
Rob Thompson using rods to look for water
Mr. Thompson, 39 years old, is a "witcher" or "dowser" -- someone who says that they can detect underground water using twigs, rods or a pendulum. He's one of what the American Society of Dowsers estimates to be more than 1,500 water witchers in the U.S., many of whom are paid for their services. Even though many geologists say the field is unscientific, Mr. Thompson says business has never been better.
That's because Western states such as California and Arizona are experiencing a well-drilling boom, amid one of the driest stretches in years and a surge of new properties being built in areas off the municipal water system.
Property developers typically look to modern technology first, hiring geologists to search for water using high-tech tools such as satellite imagery and magnetotellurics (a method of creating images of things beneath the earth's surface).
But because their investments could flop without a water source, developers building luxury resorts, orchards and wineries off the water grid aren't taking any chances. Some are hiring witchers as well as geologists, pitting them against each other in the water hunt. Meanwhile, some well drillers have witchers on staff. Other drillers offer witcher referrals or subcontract with independent witchers.
Steve Arthur, vice president of Arthur & Orum Well Drilling Inc. in Fresno, Calif., says that witchers can be effective. "Our customers just want water and dowsers find water," says Mr. Arthur.
Delectus, the winery, hired Mr. Thompson after geologists' data purportedly led to dry wells. Mr. Thompson charges $200 an hour, plus $10 for each gallon per minute produced in a well he has located. He gets paid his hourly rate whether or not he finds water. When a well yields abundant water, he says he can make $7,500 in a day's work, though he sees only a couple such days a year.
Mr. Thompson began water witching as an 11-year-old. The profession runs in his family -- his uncle and his grandfather were also witchers.
People who claim the ability to locate groundwater have been around for hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the witchers' divining rod was used in the mines of Western Europe in the 16th century. Witchers explain their abilities in myriad ways -- faith in God, electrical impulses, magnetic fields and intuition chief among them. Most witchers say anyone can learn to do it.
Water witching raises many geologists' hackles. The scientific community tends to explain any success witchers have by saying they look for signs of water on the earth's surface, such as changes in vegetation.
George Dunfield, chief of the professional-standards unit at the California Board of Geologists and Geophysicists, says many witchers are frauds who swindle customers. But water witchers, he says, are protected by the First Amendment. Mr. Dunfield says by hiring a witcher, consumers are essentially signing onto a religious doctrine "like voodoo" and the state can do little to protect them. He says there have been a growing number of complaints recently from people who say they paid witchers to find water and were led to dry wells.
Enforcement officers from the California geologists' board and the Contractors State Licensing Board are now planning sting operations targeting witchers and well drillers who use them, says Mr. Dunfield. While low-tech witching isn't illegal, a few witchers who purport to be scientists and use high-tech equipment such as radar to supplement their witching are violating a 1968 law that bans practicing geology without a license.
All of this hasn't stopped some thirsty developers from turning to witchers as a hedge against geologists. When a group of investors called Aqua Trac LLC launched a $160 million 57-mile water pipeline project in western Nevada in 2005, they hired geologist Walt Martin to locate groundwater.
But the Aqua Trac investors also hired a witcher named Jack Coel. "We've seen dowsers find wells out on ranches where no one's ever found water before," says investor Tom Gallagher, a fifth-generation Nevadan who grew up ranching. "We just wanted to have all our bases covered before spending a few million dollars drilling."
One of the coordinates Mr. Coel provided ultimately produced a 5,000-gallons-per-minute water gusher. Even Mr. Martin, the geologist, concedes he was impressed. "He was within a stone's throw of the locations I chose," says Mr. Martin.
When winemaker Gerhard Reisacher looked to buy Delectus Winery, located on a previously dry mountainside outside Calistoga, Calif., in late 2004, his purchase was contingent on finding water. "I put the geologists' report down, picked up the phone and called a water witcher," he says.
Mr. Thompson began work at the 112-acre winery in October 2004 and promptly located a well-drilling spot that yielded more than 265 gallons of water per minute. To find water, he says he follows a few basic rules: to trust himself and to stay hydrated, since "you can't find water if you're thirsty," he says.
In May 2006, Mr. Thompson was tasked with finding water for the Napa Valley golf course and estate homes project. He's being pit against a hydrogeologist on the project.
Mr. Thompson believes that finding water is becoming all too easy. "What I'd really like is to try dowsing for oil," he says.