In the drought, the water-sniffing wizards are overworked



Rob Thompson drives a stake into the ground to indicate the discovery of a possible water reservoir, while his wife, Robyne, notes the location during a water scan at a Napa Valley vineyard in Calistoga, California, on July 13, 2021. (Jim Wilson / The New York Times).


© Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group
Rob Thompson drives a stake into the ground to indicate the discovery of a possible water reservoir, while his wife, Robyne, notes the location during a water scan at a Napa Valley vineyard in Calistoga, California, on July 13, 2021. (Jim Wilson / The New York Times).

CALISTOGA, California – In a vineyard surrounded by burned hills and charred trees, Rob Thompson took two stainless steel poles, began to spin in circles, and counted under his breath.

Then he claimed he had found it: water, hundreds of meters under the parched ground.

“This is very good,” said Thompson, 53, as he marked an ‘X’ on the ashen ground with his shoe. “This is a deep reservoir: 228 meters, 55 to 60 gallons per minute.” He added: “I can feel it.”

Thompson is a water tank tracker, also known as a dowser.

He claims to be able to locate streams of water in the fractures of the earth’s bedrock, with two L-shaped wands that together look like an old television antenna. Amid California’s extreme drought, just a two-hour drive north of the nation’s tech capital, Silicon Valley, the water-tracking services of a man using two 3-foot sticks and his intuition they are in high demand.



Rob Thompson tracks water in a Napa Valley vineyard in Calistoga, California, on July 13, 2021. (Jim Wilson / The New York Times).


© Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group
Rob Thompson tracks water in a Napa Valley vineyard in Calistoga, California, on July 13, 2021. (Jim Wilson / The New York Times).

“I don’t think I’ve ever been this busy in my entire life,” said Thompson, a third-generation dowser with gray hair and a heavy gait. He used to be a co-owner of one of Northern California’s largest well-digging companies, but he resigned and is now tracking water reservoirs full-time.

Its busy schedule is a sign of the desperation of farmers, vineyard owners and land managers as California battles a devastating drought that has depleted aquifers, withered crops and forced some growers to sell their farm rights. water use.

The mystical technique of locating new sources of groundwater is thought to have first became fashionable in Europe in the Middle Ages. The method is known as dowsing or dowsing, or even dowsing, and those who practice it are called dowsers, dowsers, or earth magicians, a phrase that perhaps originated from the fact that this practice was considered witchcraft in the 17th century. .

The National Groundwater Association, a group of experts, which includes hydrogeologists and promotes the responsible use of water, describes dowsing as a practice “without any scientific merit.” However, some California farmers who pay for the service say that it is often a cheaper alternative to traditional methods, such as hiring a geologist.

The American Society of Dowsers claims it has about 2,000 members, several of whom are active dowsing. Other magicians claim to be able to locate treasures, lost items, alien life forms, and stress points on the body. Some dowsers hang a Buddha pendant on a printed map or computer screen to find what they are looking for. Thompson – who also tracks oil, gas and minerals – says that when he steps on a groundwater reservoir, the energy around him changes, causing an involuntary muscle tug inside him that causes his rods to cross.

He, as well as other fellow water-trackers, are laborers who know agriculture thoroughly, but whose beliefs in the “sixth sense” or “subconscious occurrence” of dowsing undoubtedly stem more from the New Age than from the countryside. Many say that the knowledge of their craft was inherited from their elders, and they revere the ancestral aspect of the practice, although suspicious looks are sometimes drawn.

“People think we’re crazy,” said Larry Bird, 77, a Sacramento-based dowser who learned the method from his grandfather. He described the feeling of being near water as something like a magnetic field. “It makes me hot,” he explained. “Like when a battery is short-circuited.”

Sharry Hope, a longtime dowser living in Oroville, California, says that when she stands in water she feels “chills.” Hope says he learned one of the techniques he now uses to find water on maps from a retired military officer: swing a pendulum until it stops and points into a “vein of water,” Hope explained. “Then he just marked it with a marker.”

While scientists and groundwater experts make it clear that the dowser methods are pseudoscientific and nothing more than a hoax, dozens of vineyards in California’s wealthiest wine regions have hired them to find water on their land.

A company that manages vineyards in the Napa Valley has hired dowsing at nearly all of the more than 70 vineyards it oversees. “I’ve never worked with a geologist to find water,” said Johnnie White, company operations manager, Piña Vineyard Management.

Another business owner said Thompson had successfully located deposits at several properties. “You have to see it to believe it, right?” Said Doug Hill, owner of the Hill Family Estate, which oversees several vineyards and a winery in the Napa Valley.

Fifty of California’s 58 counties are in a state of drought emergency. Water rights holders have been ordered to stop taking their portions of the rivers. On farms and vineyards, increased well drilling and increased reliance on wells have helped deplete groundwater reservoirs, prompting some to extract the precious resource. The waiting list for a drill can be several months to a year, and digging costs tens of thousands of dollars.

Hydrogeologists use a combination of satellite imagery, knowledge of geology and surveying, geophysical instruments, and other hydrological tools to assess water sources, explained Timothy Parker, a Sacramento-based groundwater management consultant, geologist and engineer, “in comparison with dowsing, which only consists of a person with a stick ”.

There is a chance, Parker and other experts said, that dowsers were just lucky, because water is not hard to find in many areas of California. It’s also possible that dowsing like Thompson, with years of experience in the industry, are already well acquainted with the terrain, they added.

“There are financial issues, personal beliefs and desperation factors that go into the decision to try dowsing,” Ben Frech, a spokesman for the National Groundwater Association, said in an email. While the group understands that desperation could lead people to “explore all options,” in the end, Frech concluded, the method is a waste of time and money.

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