I live in a city and I've never seen a water well. It sounds exotic, or even fictional. I just turn on my faucet, water comes out, and I don't have to consider its source.
Here in the eastern United States, we're doing OK when it comes to precipitation, but our West Coast neighbors are seriously suffering from a terrible drought. California—often referred to as our nation's "breadbasket" because it grows nearly half of all domestically produced fruits, vegetables, and nuts—is deep into its second year of reduced rainfall, the likes of which the state hasn't seen since the 70s. That much food on the line means a lot of profits are in danger. With this year's drastically reduced crop yields, food prices across the country are rapidly increasing. In the next few months, the prices of artichokes, celery, broccoli, and cauliflower could rise by 10 percent.
These high stakes are making California farmers both desperate and creative, because they're looking for ways to find water underground since it refuses to fall from the sky. A couple of weeks ago, an article about "water witches" caught my eye. The piece described so-called witches in California using the age-old technique of the divining rod—usually just a tree branch—to tap into energy fields below the surface of the land to locate groundwater and pinpoint where to drill wells. This common practice, also known as dowsing, has been around since at least the 15th century and has been also used to unearth precious metals, gravesites, and oil reserves. In spite of its popularity, witching has long been stigmatized. In 1518, Martin Luther thought the notion of walking around with a wooden stick in the woods was completely freaky, and decried it as occultism. Seventeenth-century France even put strict limitations on water witches. But while scientific bodies such as the US Geological Survey claim that witching is about as successful at finding water as pure guesswork, it continues, after many, many centuries, to remain popular: Winemaker Robert Mondavi, a practicing water witch himself, has popularized the practice in California's vineyards, and even John Franzia—the Two-Buck Chuck guy—advocates dowsing.
I wanted to hear about witching firsthand, so I called Sharron Hope, the president of Gold Country Dowsers, the Oroville, CA–based chapter of the American Society of Dowsers. Hope, who has been dowsing in California since the 70s, said that in recent years her business has more than quadrupled. Just don't call her a witch.
VICE: When you go out dowsing for water, how exactly does that work? Sharron Hope: I head to the property, I find a tree branch, and I hold it out in front of me. Then, I turn around in a circle, and when the branch senses energy, it'll start dipping down towards the earth, but just minutely—you have to really concentrate on what you're doing; you have to forget about everything else, just relax and turn slowly, and when you feel that dip, you walk in that direction. When you get over the site where there is the most water, that stick is gonna point down to the earth.
You say "when the stick senses energy." What kind of energy are we talking about here? Water, of course, is flowing underground, and it's flowing past rocks, and rocks actually store energy. So as it goes through those rocks, the water strips off some of that energy—some of those electrons—from the rocks. And that energy goes shooting straight up. That's what the tree branch, up on the surface, is responding to. I started doing water wells in 1979. And I've noticed over the years that there are heavily-traveled deer trails over water veins. And a lot of times, when I go out to dowse, the spot that I find to drill the well is where two deer trails cross. So wild animals, too, can pick up on that energy that comes up from the water.
The process sounds kind of supernatural. Is that where the name "water witch" comes from? Actually, the name comes from the fact that a lot of dowsers, historically, used a branch from the witch hazel tree to find water. But the overall term is dowser—you know, we don't like to be called water witches, actually. It provokes snide comments. It's really just an old-fashioned term that people used 100 years ago.
It sounds like dowsing has a long history. As far as we can figure out, the practice goes back at least 10,000 years. There are actually petroglyphs of men holding a tree branch and looking for water. And of course, before we had machinery and drilling rigs, we had to hand-dig wells, so you better believe they had some kind of methods to find the water. And basically, most of 'em just used a tree branch.
OK, so back to the branch. Once you find your spot, what do you do? I'll mark that spot, and then I'll get my L-rods out. They're made of solid brass, and they have a copper handle. So I'm holding on to the handles, and I'm standing a little bit away from the site that the branch found. And I move towards that site, and I get right over it, and then those two L-rods will cross.
So they're sort of drawing together of their own accord? Yes, they go together of their own accord. They cross and make an "X." And if I back up again and walk around that site, maybe about 8 to 10 feet away from it, as I get to a water vein, those rods are gonna separate and make a line. That indicates the edge of the water vein. So that's the process that I use. In fact, I was out dowsing a well in Berry Creek today for a family who bought ten acres out there, and they want to have a well for a little family garden. And last Thursday, I was out at a vineyard—it was almost 200 acres, and I dowsed several well sites for them.
Do vineyards make up a lot of your clientele? Oh, I have a variety of clients. A lot of homeowners around here have property with acreage, and for a lot of them, their wells have either gone dry because of the drought, or the water table has gotten so low that they're not getting enough out of their wells to run their households. We have rice farmers around here, and I've dowsed wells for them. We have a lot of agriculture around here. I've done organic orchards, citrus farms, olive orchards—there's a lot that I've done in the past 35 years.
Has your business increased in the past couple of years because of the terrible drought? Oh, definitely, definitely. For most of my career, I'd been dowsing about one well a month. Now I'm doing anywhere from one to four a week.
Do you get calls from people who had never heard of dowsing before? Yes, the well-drillers are actually referring people to me. Because the well-driller, you know, he just drills a hole. He says, "Where do you want me to drill your well?" And at $15–50 a foot for drilling, you don't really want to have to guess at where he should start drilling—you want to know.