Water 'Witches' Pit Science Against Folklore in Search of Groundwater

By: John Donovan  | 

water dowsing
Australian Keith Francisco holds two pieces of wire to demonstrate the practice of water divining at his property Tindarey in Cobar, Australia. The octogenarian is a water diviner using ancient methods particularly successful in dry environments. Mark Evans/Getty Images

Water witches have been around — and by around, we mean around the world, from Australia and India to Europe and the Americas to many, many other places — for at least five centuries. So just in terms of simple longevity, you have to give it up to the witches. As a profession, that's been around for so long, they have to be doing something right.

When it comes to water witches — also known as dowsers, diviners, doodlebuggers and various other names — in our so-called enlightened times, though, we're faced with two distinct possibilities. One, they're either really good, and have been for a long time, at pulling a fast one on desperate landowners looking for groundwater.

Or, two, they actually know what they're doing and they're not pulling a fast one at all.

"There's been at least some research testing the dowsers' skill," over the years, says Todd Jarvis, the director of the Institute for Water & Watersheds at Oregon State University, a one-time dowser and member of the American Society of Dowsers, and a practicing hydrogeologist. "And for every study that says there's nothing to it, there's a study that says there's something to it."

Believe it. Or not.

water dowsing
Many water witches back in the day used nothing more than a forked stick to search for groundwater because they believed that these were simply channels for their power.
U.S. Geological Survey

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What's a Water Witch?

You may have seen the water witch in popular culture. Forked stick in front, wandering arid land until, somewhat magically and often with the hint of help from some otherworldly power, the witch and the wand divine a spot in the dirt where life-giving water, at some depth underground, waits to be liberated.

It may sound like some rather hokey hocus-pocus, or something from, say, 500 years ago. But by one estimate, some 60,000 water dowsers are practicing in America today. That's more than 10 times the number of hydrologists, who provide many of the same services as witches, substituting science for the forked sticks.

Not all water witches use the forked branch of a tree these days, of course. Most locate the water based on movement of diving rods. Copper rods and pendulums are popular tools of the trade. A smartly contorted wire coat hanger might do the trick. Shovels. Pitchforks. Glass beads. A crowbar. These simply channels for the power.

And not all dowsers go about their groundwater search the same way. Some actually incorporate science into their divining; they look at the topography of the land, the geology. They use maps. They may even have an understanding of local aquifers. They make drawings. Do tests.

All rely on some kind of unseen, perhaps divine, intervention to suss out the water. It's an innate ability, a "sense" or "intuition." Sometimes it's simple and quiet. Sometimes it's more theatrical. "You can see some of these folks performing on YouTube," Jarvis says. "Their bodies go into all sorts of contortions."

The thing is, water witches are often right. Or close enough to right.

The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has long had to field questions about the viability of dowsers and their claims. Yet even the USGS admits that dowsers — water witches, whatever — can find water. How? From the USGS:

The natural explanation of "successful" water dowsing is that in many areas water would be hard to miss. The dowser commonly implies that the spot indicated by the rod is the only one where water could be found, but this is not necessarily true. In a region of adequate rainfall and favorable geology, it is difficult not to drill and find water!
groundwater
Water witches are using ancient techniques to find groundwater that is part of the water table.
Designua/Shutterstock

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Science vs. Water Witching

All this pointing and "feeling" has led to real tension between scientists and dowsers. Some of it, undoubtedly, flows from the fact that the witches indeed have a measure of success in locating underground water, which has led many landowners in search of water to call on dowsers in place of, or in addition to, scientists.

The scientists push back.

"To locate ground water accurately ... as to depth, quantity and quality, a number of techniques must be used. Hydrologic, geologic, and geophysical knowledge is needed to determine the depths and extent of the different water-bearing strata and the quantity and quality of water found in each. The area must be thoroughly tested and studied to determine these facts," the USGS says.

"Compared to dowsing," Timothy Parker, a California groundwater management consultant and hydrogeologist, told The New York Times, "which is a person with a stick."

The USGS and others suggest that the added expense of calling in water witches, though reportedly less than a certified scientist, is simply not worth it.

For his part, Jarvis maintains that geologists and other scientists (including hydrologists) are more adept at finding the water. But witches, he says, are more trusted by farmers and other landowners.

Jarvis regularly lectures on water witching (a recent webinar conducted for the American Water Resources Association was entitled, "Finding Water the Ol' Timey Way") and has some firsthand knowledge of it.

Early on in his more than 30-year career, he regularly encountered dowsers — he still does — and, after joining the American Society of Dowsers (ASD), someone found his name on a list of dowsers and, much to his surprise, asked him to come witch a well. So he did.

After getting the lay of the land, he picked a spot. It turned out OK. Still, "it didn't make any sense to me as a geologist," he says.

Despite the head-butting between Old World and new science, Jarvis now is rather neutral about the idea of dowsing and water witching. He's never surprised when someone finds underground water through non-scientific methods — again, there's a lot of groundwater out there — but he says that the act of striking water, of bringing it to the surface, remains "magical."

"I look at it this way," Jarvis says. "They have a 400-year jump on us [dowsers versus hydrologists and hydrogeologists]. To me, it's part of the folklore. It's easy to dismiss it. But if you do, you dismiss that folklore. You dismiss a part of your history."

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