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A Professional 'Water Witch' Explains How to Find Water in a Drought

Farmers in California have turned to people who rely on intuition and pendulums to find groundwater.

Image: Shutterstock

As the East Coast continues to get snow dumped on it, California's record-setting drought drags on. It's gotten so bad that farmers in the state have called upon "dowsers," a group of people who have the ability to find water using their intuition and a series of tools with names like L and Y rods, pendulums, and bobbers. Some people have taken to calling them “water witches,” and some claim they can find underground water just by looking at a map of a plot of land. (Reportedly, it's tougher than just pointing at the blue parts.)

The practice has become so ingrained in agriculture that in 1988, the United States Geological Survey released a report mostly dismissing the practice.

“Case histories and demonstrations of dowsers may seem convincing, but when dowsing is exposed to scientific examination, it presents a very different picture,” the report says. “The natural explanation of ‘successful’ water dowsing is that in many areas, water would be hard to miss. The dowser commonly implies that the spot indicated by the rod is the only one where water could be found, but this is not necessarily true. In a region of adequate rainfall and favorable geology, it is difficult not to drill and find water.”

Even so, I called up Barney Turner—head of the Nor Cal Dowsers, a group of 100-or-so water witches—to see what dowsing is all about. 

Motherboard: So, what exactly is dowsing?

Barney Turner: It's a person who has developed their intuition to be able to tune into the vibrations of water. By using L rods or fly rods, they can use that intuition as an indication to tell them when they tune into that particular vibration that leads them to water. 

So if you want to find water, what do you do?

If someone wants us to find water on their property, they send me a map or parcel of their land. What I do is called “mapped dowsing.” I sit here at home and I dowse with L rods on that parcel. It’ll tell me, from a distance, whether they have water, how deep that water is, and how many gallons per minute it is.

Then I contact them and tell them they have water on their property and tell them that it’s 300, 400, 500 feet deep and they have however many gallons per minute. If they want us to go further from there, we go out to the site and show them where on the property it is.

These are just the basics. There’s a lot more to it. But at that point, I show them the spot and they drill there and we’ll correct the spot if they drift a little. It sounds pretty simple, but it usually takes a few years to learn the ability.

I don’t think it sounds too simple. How do I go about becoming a dowser? 

Well, you go on the Internet and look up Letter to Robin, and the companion, which was put out by Walt Woods, a friend of mine who is now deceased. It’ll tell you exactly what you need to do to train yourself to be a dowser. It shows you the basics of how to work a pendulum, and how to program yourself. Your mind is like a computer. If you want to program Windows XP, you’re doing the same thing with dowsing, but with your mind. He teaches you how to put these programs in your mind so it’ll recognize what you’re doing so you can tell the depth and amount of water, whether that water is contaminated or not.

Turner teaching a class. Image: Nor Cal Dowsers

How many of you are there in Northern California? 

There’s about 100 of us, I’ve been doing this for 64 years, since I was five years old. My grandfather was a dowser, my grandson is a dowser, and we’re all born on each others’ birthdays.

How do you feel about the term “water witch?”

It doesn’t bother me, it’s somebody’s ignorance if they want to use it. Everyone has a different talent, but 98 percent of the population can dowse. Anyway, it’s just a matter of practicing. Like my wife says, anyone can play the piano, you just have to take lessons.

Do you remember the first time you dowsed?

My grandfather was a well driller and a blacksmith, and one time, he was having trouble locating water in this town called Garberville. He came and got his three grandsons and gave us little willow switches and said “go find water.” I was five years old at the time.

Anyhow, we didn’t know what we were, so he showed me how to hold it, and I walked along until it pointed to the ground. He came along behind me and was hesitant to believe me. He thought I was doing it on purpose, but he put his hand over top of mine and the bark just about peeled off the willow switch. That was my first experience in dowsing, and I’ve been doing it ever since. It’s been there every time.

And you can do this without even going to the property?

Well, if the person sends me the map of their property, I can just use that.

Do you think of it as a science or a skill or an intuition, or what? 

It’s real basic. Everybody has a different talent. Some people can dowse for water, some people have the ability to find lost people or find lost objects. Some have the ability to see auras and can tell whether you’ve had an injury or if there’s something wrong with your body. A lady yesterday was at our club, she can look at your eyes and can tell if there’s something wrong with your liver or other part of your body because it changes the color in different parts of your eyes.

I think it’s both a science and an intuition. The older I get the more I find out everybody has the same intuition and abilities. I think it goes back to our ancestry, because everyone needed to find water to be able to survive.

And you can use dowsing for other things, too?

Yeah. With L rods you can find streams, you can tell north east south and west. We can find septic tanks that are buried. I just used dowsing to pick the right seeds to plant in my garden. There’s 80 different varieties of tomatoes. How do you pick that out? Well, I used dowsing to find the right seeds that are good for my land.

How much does this cost the farmers?

It depends on the location and the severity of the drought, but usually it’s between $75 and $200. Sometimes, the towns are really far away so you’re out for eight hours and you make $200. That’s not too much money.