Lopez: Can dowsers help us through the drought?

So how did it happen that the other night a city employee was trudging across my front yard with dowsing rods, looking for groundwater?

The answer begins with a stupid mistake on my part. I accidentally jammed a sprinkler head on the edge of the driveway while driving into my yard and water began to rise from underground.

I had never used these sprinklers and thought the line was dead when I bought the house five years ago. Apparently that wasn’t the case, and in the middle of a drought, water was now running down the road. So I called the Pasadena Water Authority emergency number and the operator promised to send a troubleshooter.

A friendly guy showed up within minutes and made a quick assessment. There was no way to stop the surge without shutting off the home’s main water supply, he said. So he took care of it and said I would have to call a plumber to figure out where the underground sprinkler pipe joins the water main and then have him dig and fix the break.

But how would a plumber locate a pipe buried underground and asphalt?

The troubleshooter said he’d be right back. He went to his truck and returned with two L-shaped metal bars, each about 2 feet long. He paced back and forth, keeping the bars parallel to the floor and a few inches apart. Now and then the poles crossed. Every spot they did, he bent down and put up a little blue flag and said that’s probably where I would find my broken whistle.

“I thought that was voodoo,” I said politely.

He told me he didn’t understand the science behind dowsing, if there is any, but he knew it worked. He said he has a $4,500 device in his truck to check for water lines, but has more faith in the rods.

Well that piqued my interest and I started to do a little digging myself. Is there something to dowsing, and if so, could a battalion of dowsers help us weather the drought by identifying underground aquifers and streams?

“There are energies associated with the flow of water underground, and that creates an electromagnetic field,” said Sharry Hope, an Oroville resident who told me she has been doing dowsing for decades. She said she feels this energy when using her rods.

I asked Hope if I could become a dowser myself.

“You should be able to do it if you know what you’re doing,” she said.

Can I use hangers as rods?

“Sure,” said Hope.

I went into my closet, grabbed a hanger, straightened it, cut it in half and formed two L-shaped bars. I went to my front yard and walked around like the troubleshooter.

Nothing has happened.

I held the wands over the kitchen sink and then over a bucket of water.

Nothing.

Larry Bird, another dowser from Northern California, told me his grandfather had witching sticks and he took up the craft. He told me that water has a current that he can see with his rods.

“I can tell you where water is, how deep it is, and how many gallons you’re going to get,” said Bird, who started to lose me as he discussed buried bodies, pyramids, and what he called stone skulls.

Next I called Rob Thompson, a wine country dowser who wrote an article in the New York Times last year about how water witches, as some of them call themselves, are in high demand because of the drought. Thompson said the craft is hundreds of years old and he is a third-generation dowser who has been at it for more than 40 years.

“I’ve won over a lot of skeptics with actual evidence,” he said, telling me he’s often hired after people have drilled their property multiple times and gotten nothing.

When they hire him — at $1,500 for the first two hours and $650 an hour thereafter — they’re “blown away,” Thompson said. He said a dowser must appreciate the “earth’s magnetic polarity,” clear the mind, and be open to the possibility of a person tapping into an undeveloped sixth sense.

“I have the gift,” Thompson said, telling me he could stand with his wands in one place and gradually rotate until he got a feel for where to find water. “Our minds are so much more powerful than we are led to believe in America. America is dumb but you let go of all of that and you can be so much more.”

I’m naturally a skeptic about such things. Twelve years ago, when an animal communicator sent me the transcript of a conversation she allegedly had with the raccoons that were ravaging my Silver Lake yard, I had trouble admitting it to myself.

I’m a little less skeptical about looking for water, despite my broken hanger, but two underground water experts I spoke to reinforced my doubts. Each of them said there is plenty of groundwater, even in drought-stricken California. Finding good spots to drill can be difficult, but they said it’s possible to make educated guesses by understanding the watershed landscape, geological maps, and local well-drilling history.

Timothy K. Parker, a chartered hydrogeologist, said he is not a dowser and could not comment on the electromagnetic currents theory.

“But these dowsers can use some of the same information that a hydrogeologist would use to identify potential drill sites,” Parker said.

Matt O’Connor, a board certified engineering geologist with a Ph.D. in forest hydrology, giggled when I told him what I was calling about.

“People can pretty easily know where there’s going to be water and have a success rate that people will believe,” O’Connor claims that dowsing works.

And yet two longtime winemakers and vineyard managers told me they had faith in Thompson. Doug Hill said he’s hired Thompson five or six times over the years, and the dowser has been more right than wrong.

Hill said that there were dowsers in his own family and that he used the wands himself on occasion. Hill said that when Thompson claimed success for another vine grower, Hill called the vintner to confirm and was told he had contacted Thompson after 17 or 18 attempts at drilling. The dowser told him where to drill, how deep to go, and how many gallons per minute to pump.

And he did it.

“I believe in magic and the possibility that people have abilities that we don’t fully understand,” Hill said, telling me that with Thompson’s help he held the rods himself and felt a strong pull on a water source that was discovered.

Glenn Proctor, who grows Zinfandel and Petite Sirah in Healdsburg for his Puccioni Vineyards label, told me it can cost $25,000 to drill a well and come dry. So he likes to hedge his bets by hiring both conventional groundwater experts and Thompson to see if they agree on the best onshore drilling sites that Proctor’s family has been working on for 100 years.

“Hopefully for me, if I have two sources of agreement, I’m less likely to hit a dry hole when I’m drilling,” said Proctor, who told me Thompson had been on his property before. It’s running out of water now, Proctor said, and he’s hired Thompson again to find a good spot for another well.

Incidentally, both state-certified water experts I interviewed suggested that water conservation and harvesting were better long-term ways to address California’s drought, and one pointed out that pumping groundwater has caused the soil to split of the San Joaquin Valley.

As for my own water emergency, when I hired a plumber, he and I found that my corroded underground pipe wasn’t where the dowser planted the blue flags.

I have yet to receive a bill for the repair that involved digging a large hole in my driveway.

I just hope it’s a lot less than $25,000.

Steve.lopez@latimes.com

https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2022-07-13/lopez-column-broken-sprinkler-can-dowsers-help-us-through-drought Lopez: Can dowsers help us through the drought?

Alley Einstein

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