Whether it’s science or not, practitioners of water witching swear by its seeking powers

Some swear a forked branch from a peach tree is best. Others cut a coat hanger in half. Still others use bronze.

Water witching is holding sticks or rods in front of you while you walk, hoping they’ll dip or cross when you’ve hit a patch of groundwater ideal for a well. The practice is also called dowsing. Less common are the terms divination, doodlebugging, radiesthesia or using a wiggle stick. There’s speculation that the term witching stems from use of witch hazel sticks.

A man holding a triangle shaped branch
Robert Eberly demonstrates how he uses sticks to find water. (Photo by Mike Grundmann)

Practitioners swear it works. 

Scientists say it’s bogus.

Practitioners say you can’t argue with results.

Scientists say there’s possible validity when searching for buried utility pipes,  especially electrical lines. 

Practitioners remain undeterred by skeptics.

“I laughed when I first saw him do this,” says Elaine Eberly of her husband, Robert. “I didn’t believe him at all.”

Robert, 74, is a retired agricultural engineer who’s used the technique to find buried pipes on his 9.5-acre hobby farm in Mt. Crawford. His father, Marion, was once Dayton’s mayor and a well-known dowser.

Robert uses a forked branch from one of his apple trees. He’ll grip and spread the ends, like you would a wishbone, and hold it pointing straight up. When the point dips — sometimes as low as 180 degrees — is when he’s found a pipe.

To make sure, “I will make multiple passes.” He plants tiny orange flags to mark the rows he’s already covered.

He’s not sure how it works but theorizes that there’s some kind of signal or magnetic field.

“I don’t believe it’s spiritual.”

He says he’s never been told his results didn’t pan out once the designated hole has been dug. He dowses for free, just through word of mouth.

Many dowsers use L-shaped metal rods and hold them using a metal sheath that isolates the rod from the fingers — a nod to the scientific method.

Cave paintings 6,000 to 8,000 years old appear to show dowsing in action, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Decades ago in the U.S., there was a culture in which dowsers with the right reputation would perform the service for a family and be “paid” with an invitation for dinner.

And when there’s drought, demand goes up.

Last year, British news organizations reported that water engineers working on the River Thames in London were still relying partly on dowsing to find leaks. The engineers said it was only to “narrow down” the locus of a problem.

YouTube has plenty of dowsing footage. For results that look impressive, see “The Utility Locator Had Us Pulling Out Our Hair! Dowsing Rods Saved Us!” There’s also “Dowsing rods debunked!”

Some devotees belong to Central Virginia Dowsers or the American Society of Dowsers. It holds national conventions. And you can buy “water dowsing rods” on Amazon.

“I’ve seen them practically jump out of his hands,” says Tim Orebaugh of his friend Joey Foltz, 64, an electrical contractor based in Harrisonburg who has often dowsed for buried utility lines.

As for how it works, “I wish I could tell you,” Foltz says. The rods will “actually move in the direction the pipe is going … I’m not going to say I’ve had 100% success. …One guy said you have to be born in the sign of water.” Except that Foltz is a Capricorn, not watery like Pisces.

One pitfall of dowsing, he says, is that some objects in the ground and overhead, such as power lines, can bias the results.

Julie Sions, 44, a high school natural resources teacher who lives in Junction, West Virginia, swears by dowsing to find buried pipes and claims 90% success.

“I’ve had to do it at my school, so we wouldn’t dig up the water line from the greenhouse,” she said.  

She showed her students how her two metal wires reacted once she walked to a drainage ditch. 

“Most of them were very skeptical at first, then they were shocked.”

She also speculates that some type of “magnetic force” is involved, like the way a compass needle behaves.

She and many experts say it can be hard to gauge dowsing’s validity because of all the variables at work.

“Are you dealing with sand, or silt, or clay?” she says. “Maybe you’re more successful when the water is shallow versus deep.”            

As opposed to finding the path of pipes, dowsing for groundwater meets the most skepticism.

“I don’t believe in it,” says Shane Foster, co-owner of Foster Well & Pump Co. in Earlysville. When dowsers have chosen the spot, “We’ve drilled countless wells that have not produced water, to the point where we’ve been accused of drilling crooked or in the wrong spot.” 

But, he says, dowsing for utility pipes might be producing some kind of signal, and  “there’s been a lot more success with that.”

The U.S. Geological Survey says studies don’t support groundwater dowsing.

“In many areas underground water is so prevalent close to the land surface that it would be hard to drill a well and not find water,” the agency declares

A dowser claiming success might also have been unconsciously guided by such visible clues as vegetation, terrain and minerals. Scientists also say you’ll often find water just by drilling deep enough. 

Michael Bradley, professor emeritus of structural geology at Eastern Michigan University, says groundwater dowsing is “utter nonsense.” 

“Whenever water witches have been subjected to a scientific investigation, they have failed miserably in their attempts to locate water,” he says.

Scott Eaton, a JMU geology professor, adds that “many geologists are hesitant to go ‘on record’ with their opinions (rather than the science) of dowsing, given the polarization of this topic.” 

The dowsers seem to be sticking with their 90%.

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