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Witching to find water

Photo courtesy of Marc Mondavi
Marc Mondavi demonstrates his divining rods

Five years of drought has forced California farmers and wine makers to turn from the sky to the ground to find water. It’s down there, but you have to know exactly where it is in order to drill a well.  

There are a couple of options for how to do this: you can have a geologist use mapping and scientific data to get a lay of the land; or you can can hire a water witch. These are people who search for water using two thin sticks or iron rods that they say cross each other when there’s water  under the earth.

This practice is more commonly called dowsing. It dates back thousands of years, but modern-day dowsers aren’t hard to find, like winemaker Marc Mondavi.

Today, he’s walking out near the vines in Napa Valley, but his focus is not on wine. He’s looking for water.  

“Is there 40 gallons per minute, 50, 60?” Mondavi asks two L-shaped iron rods, called ‘divining rods’. He’s asking them where the water is. “Then, we have to find out, how deep do we drill? Is there water 100 feet, 200 feet, 300 feet?”

Mondavi says something unexplained is guiding him when he’s dowsing for water.

“I think it’s just something you have in your body,” he says. “Some people can run a Ouija board and some people can’t.”

Mondavi discovered this gift when he was a teenager. He knows that there are some non-believers.

“Scientists all want facts. Well, there’s no facts to this. There’s no science that’s proven that I have or don’t have an energy,” Mondavi says.

This energy that he’s talking about isn’t anything “new-agey”. It has some deep roots.

One of the first images of dowsing appears in an etching in the Tassili N'ajjer Caves in the Sahara. It dates back to around 6,000 B.C. There’s even what some believe is a dowsing reference in the Old Testament when Moses was asked:

“Take the rod, and gather thou the assembly together, thou, and Aaron thy brother, and speak ye unto the rock before their eyes; and it shall give forth his water, and thou shalt bring forth to them water out of the rock…” (Numbers 20:8)

And as years go by, there are even more records of dowsing on farms and during the medieval era. By the 1500s dowsing was denounced as the work of the devil. But the water witches continued on because many have seen it actually work--like Mondavi.

“Find me an underground water stream, boom they cross,” Mondavi tells me as he walks along his property. He actually already knows there’s water here where we are standing – he’s dowsed this spot before and dug a well. But he’s also had success elsewhere, and people pay him $500 to find water on their land.

Some scientists have tried to figure out why it is that some people are able to find water with divining rods, but nothing has been conclusive.  

Even Mondavi doesn’t really know why he can find water with these rods. I ask him to describe this energy he feels when he’s dowsing for water.

“I can’t. I can sense something. I talk to mine, you don’t need to talk to them. You can think. It’s all yes and no questions. These rods aren’t capable of pontificating on water,” he says.

He hands me his divining rods to see if I may have the gift. I take the rods and slowly walk along the edge of the vineyard, and ask the rods, “Find me the underground water stream.”

The rods eventually slowly touch together, but Mondavi tells me I’m in the wrong spot.

“You were about right,” he says. “You got a little bit. You don’t have the energy that I do.”

I ask him how I get it.

“You just have it or you don’t. It’s just how strong you have it,” he says.

I tell Mondavi I thought for sure I’d have it, but today it’s obvious, I’m no water witch.

Mondavi says a lot of farmers in his region rely on water witches, even if they don’t hire him.

“I would say about 50% of the farmers will use a water witcher if they have the space or an area where there could be multiple drilling sites,” says Gonzalo Salinas, one of the owners of McLean and Williams drilling company, not far from Mondavi’s farm.

“There’s been cases where we go to do drilling on a property and the site has been picked by a geologist or somebody with different instrumentation to locate the wells, and it turns out to be a dry well,” Salinas says, “and the witcher will come over and pick another site and it turns out to be a well.”

Salinas says no method of finding water is guaranteed, but “on a scale of one to 10, I would say water witching is probably a seven.”  

And it’s cheaper than other methods.

“Witching can range anywhere from $500 to $1,000 to witch a site for you to drill, where geologists can cost sometimes as much as the wells – thousands of dollars,” says Salinas.

Salinas tells me he, too, can detect certain energies underground.

“Twenty years ago, if someone said where can I locate a witcher, I would make the joke, look in the yellow pages under ‘spooky’. I started doing it myself and I became more of a believer.”

It all seems so simple. If you feel the energy, let the sticks point you in the direction and poof, there may be water! But a hydro-geologist would recommend something a little more concrete.  

“The first thing that one would do is look at some of the written records by previous geotechnical engineering contractors on that area, says Norman Miller at UC Berkeley’s Department of Geography.

Miller says hiring a hydro-geologist is the best way to go to avoid blindly drilling.

“Do some research with the Department of Water Resources and try to find archives of what is already known before doing anything. I think there’s lots of information around,” says Miller.

Some hydro-geologists can even use ground-penetrating radar to indicate the existence of water. I ask Miller what he thinks about the powers of dowsing.

“Well, I’m an optimist and there may be some things that go beyond my perspectives and worldviews so I’m going to stay open minded,” he says.  

Which is exactly what the dowsers would recommend to find water the old fashioned way – the magic of the divining rods and an open mind.

Back on Marc Mondavi’s vineyard, he pulls out a bottle of The Divining Rod, a new wine label of his with two dowsing rods criss-crossed on the front

“Ex Aqua Vinum, from water comes wine,” says Mondavi, smiling.

Now, all we have to do is find the water.

This story originally aired in May of 2015.

Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.