Parched Calif. Farmers Turn to 'Water Witches'

Vineyard owners say dowsing works; scientists disagree
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 3, 2014 12:03 AM CST
Parched Calif. Farmers Turn to 'Water Witches'
Proprietor Marc Mondavi demonstrates dowsing with "diving rods" to locate water at the Charles Krug winery in St. Helena, California.   (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

With California in the grip of drought, farmers throughout the state are using a mysterious and some say foolhardy tool for locating underground water: dowsers, or water witches. Practitioners of dowsing use rudimentary tools—usually copper sticks or wooden "divining rods" that resemble large wishbones—and what they describe as a natural energy to find water or minerals hidden deep underground. While both state and federal water scientists disapprove of dowsing, California "witchers" are busy as farmers seek to drill more groundwater wells due to the state's record drought that persists despite recent rain.

While popular, scientists say dowsers are often just lucky, looking for water in places where it's already known to likely exist. "There's no scientific basis to dowsing. If you want to go to a palm reader or a mentalist, then you're the same person who's going to go out and hire a dowser," a hydrogeologist says. "The success is really an illusion. In most places you're going to be able to drill and find some water," he said. But the co-owner of Bronco Wine, the state's biggest owner of vineyard land, says the company often uses dowsers, with great success. "I've used witchers for probably the last 15 to 20 years," he says. "Seems like the witchers do the better job than the guys with all the electrical equipment. I believe in them." (More drought stories.)

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