William Cross using his copper rods to locate water beneath the surface of his Berryville farm.
William Cross using his copper rods to locate water beneath the surface of his Berryville farm.
Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post

A Psychic Path to Water?

William Cross, left, and John Fincham Jr. of Winchester worked together to test their dowsing skills. Fincham learned the method at a school in Arkansas.
William Cross, left, and John Fincham Jr. of Winchester worked together to test their dowsing skills. Fincham learned the method at a school in Arkansas. (Photos By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
By Delphine Schrank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 27, 2007

On a sloping patch of withered grass at his Clarke County, Va., farm one recent afternoon, William Cross did what any seasoned farmer touched with the gift will do in search of a spot to dig a well. With his leathery hands, he gripped the handles of two L-shaped copper rods, held them parallel, tucked his elbows into his ribs, puffed out his chest, marched a few paces back and forth and silently bid the earth to reveal its watery secrets.

Within seconds, the rods appeared to respond, flung across each other by what Cross described as the hand of an invisible force.

"There they go!" said the 82-year-old grandfather and former book publisher -- and part-time water witch.

Also known as dowsers, most water witches say they are born with a capacity to locate underground water by channeling its energy, or electromagnetism, or something loopy and twitchy of that kind that has yet to be named by science, through a pair of metal rods, a forked twig, a coat hanger, a pendulum or, in rare cases, acutely alert fingers.

More than half of Loudoun County and the western two-thirds of Prince William County rely on private well water, according to environmental health officials. So do many parts of Frederick County and elsewhere in rural Maryland.

In summers past, rural residents sometimes summoned a dowser to seek water when wells dried up or droughts hit. A dry spell this summer has led Maryland and Virginia to seek drought relief for farmers and could prod more homeowners to turn to dowsers to find productive wells. But well drillers today who work in Washington's suburbs and beyond are often uneasy with the practice.

"You're going to get me in trouble," Bob Leazer, of Leazer Brothers Drilling and Pump Co., based in Remington in Fauquier County, responded when asked if he employs dowsers to locate the wells his company drills in 13 Virginia counties. "I've seen a lot of people that used dowsers, and I've seen 'em hit and I've seen 'em miss. And I can't say if it works."

Some people decry dowsing as the handiwork of the devil; some laud it as a gift from God. Others, in the name of rational skepticism, just call it bunk. Yet the tradition endures in the fringes of Washington. If you're going to spend a small fortune poking holes in your back yard to find water, the thinking goes, you might as well try poking a spot marked -- often free of charge -- by a water witch.

David Shirley, 47, of Stephenson-based Shirley Well Drilling, is a third-generation dowser. His father preferred fresh limbs cut from a cherry or willow tree, but Shirley uses brass rods to pinpoint and drill where he believes underground streams cross -- a prime location for a multigallon-per-minute well. He will dowse only if clients permit, but nearly all do, said his wife, Jackie.

Detractors say there's no hard proof that the method works.

The National Ground Water Association has published a brochure titled "Before You Hire a Water Witch" and declares itself "strongly opposed" to the practice. Experiments have shown that the odds of finding water through dowsing are no better than random attempts and that rods lack special powers, said Cliff Treyens, the association's public awareness director.

"If I could hire a dowser to find 200-gallons-a-minute wells, I would fire all my PhD scientists," added Jamie Emery of Emery and Garrett Groundwater Inc. in New Hampshire. His company, which works on Northern Virginia projects, uses satellite imagery and seismic and geophysical tools to find potential well sites. But those methods can cost tens of thousands of dollars for a study in a small subdivision, out of the price range of many homeowners. Several dowsers who were interviewed said they work for free or charge a nominal fee.


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