The practice (and polemics) of water witching.

Dowsing is the action of a person-called the dowser-using a rod, stick or other device... to locate such things as underground water, hidden metal, buried treasure, oil, lost persons or golf balls, etc. Since dowsing is not based upon any known scientific or empirical laws or forces of nature, it should be considered a type of divination and an example of magical thinking. The dowser tries to locate objects by occult means.

-from The Skeptic's Dictionary by Robert Todd Carroll, PhD

Although I am typically known for writing about technologies applied to the civil engineering, surveying and construction fields, I thought that a change of pace was in order. Technology doesn't always have to be new to be worth writing about. Dowsing is an old, even medieval, technology that has intrigued me for many years.

Dowsing is known by other terms, including water witching and divining. Some think that dowsing is not a technology, that it borders on magic or that it doesn't work. But many of you can attest that it does work and it works well.

My Introduction to Divining

Years ago, I worked for a large engineering firm in Houston that had installed an irrigation system into a piece of its property with the intent to landscape it at a later date. When that later date came, no one knew exactly where the irrigation lines were located. One wouldn't think this would be a problem for a company with world-class engineering brainpower.

I observed the firm's solution from my office window: a man walked the grounds while holding thin, wiry objects that looked like small branches in his hands. He paused periodically to place a mark on the grassy area and then moved on, only to pause again and mark his position again. I learned that the company had brought in a dowser to locate and mark the water lines so the construction crew would not dig them up with the backhoe. I had never seen that method of so-called technology used before, and found it ironic that a state-of-the-art consulting firm chose to hire a water witch to locate its own irrigation system.

I wondered how-and if-divining really worked. On that site, the construction crew successfully planted the trees without hitting any water lines. Searching for a theory behind dowsing, I asked several engineers and a hydrology professor about it; none had any answers for me.

Not long afterwards, a septic maintenance company employee used a divining rod to locate a septic tank on a piece of property that I had purchased. When he had finished his work, I asked him about divining. He told me that his father showed him how to do it but he wasn't sure how it worked himself. He just knew from experience that it did work.

Norm Fitzgerald of the Fairfax County Water Authority demonstrates his technique for dowsing.

A Dowsing Demonstration

A few years later, while working as a consultant for the Fairfax County Water Authority, I asked Norman Fitzgerald, LS, the senior survey technician on staff, who applied the technique of dowsing regularly, to show me how it worked.

We went outside to the parking lot. Norm brought two pieces of thin (about 4-5 mm) but fairly stiff wire, which he bent into an "L" shape that was about 18" long on the longer segment and about 6" long on the short segment. He explained to me that if you held the wires correctly, they would rotate to be parallel with underground water lines.

We inspected the parking lot and observed a water valve and a fire hydrant within a short distance of each other. We made the reasonable assumption that a water line existed between the two devices, and Norm proceeded to demonstrate the technique of dowsing.

Norm walked a few paces away from where we suspected the water line was located. He held the wires straight out in front of him and slowly walked toward the area in question. He walked so that his path was approximately perpendicular to the proposed pipeline. As he approached the location, the two wires rotated about 90 degrees until they were parallel with the suspected water line. He bent down and placed a chalk mark at this location. He then walked past the spot for several paces, turned 180 degrees and came back at the location to make a redundant check of the results. At essentially the same spot, the wires again rotated 90 degrees until they were parallel with the suspected pipe. He bent down and marked the spot again. He was within an inch or so of the original mark, and proposed that the pipe was located between the two marks.

After his demonstration, Norm instructed me on how to hold the rods. It took me a few minutes to get the hang of it, but I finally learned that the trick is to not hold the wires. You allow them to balance on your hand so that they can freely rotate or pivot near the knuckle on your pointer finger.

Once I got the feel for it, I was able to locate underground lines, including the water line first located by Norm. I followed this with storm drain lines that were obviously connecting nearby manholes. Having actually "divined" myself, I was now leaning toward being a believer.

Norm and his staff use dowsing on a weekly basis and often on a daily basis. He said, "This method is very useful because it doesn't require any expense and we can use something as simple as coat hangers. They are readily available, reliable and don't wear out or break down."

How Does It Work?

There are varying explanations for why water witching may work, which range from a belief in magic to electromagnetic forces. Discussing his theory, Norm said he "believes that the underground lines have a polarity, including plastic pipes. Everything has a positive and negative charge." According to Norm, the divining rods can sense this force and react to it by pulling the wires parallel to the charge. I submit that there may be something to his theory because it is established that ground soils do transmit electricity. Perhaps the rate at which they convey ions differs when a conduit passes through the soil, resulting in a change in the force that these devices react to.

Modern Technology for Locating

Even believers acknowledge that dowsing is not foolproof. Norm noted that overhead power lines can influence the forces acting on the wires. In congested urban areas, there can be several water lines in one area and divining doesn't separate them: the divining rod picks up a water line equally well with the adjacent sanitary sewer line. This is when electronic induction comes into play. Norm's staff does have several modern electronic devices to locate underground objects, including a Metrotech (Santa Clara, Calif.) 810 pipe and cable locator, and a Pipehorn 500 (Utility Tool Company, Birmingham, Ala.) dual frequency locator. Both perform inductive as well as direct connect methods of locating.

Others prefer to avoid all of the mystical success and problems associated with water witching, and rely solely on modern technology. Don Falken, LS, survey manager for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), said his company performs divining using electronic locators. His group uses three main methods for locating: induction, ferrous and direct. The direct method involves making a physical connection to a pipe in a manner similar to that of battery cables connecting to a car battery. This creates a current that assists in the location of the pipe upstream or downstream from the connection. It will also identify the pipe's depth beneath the surface. Using the induction method, WMATA staff members approach the pipe in a perpendicular fashion and the electronic device they are using will sense the pipe below ground. This method appears to be similar to that of water witching.

WMATA's third method of location is used to find ferrous objects beneath the surface through magnetic location. The device they use for this procedure is a PL-2000 Pipeline and Cable Locator made by SubSurface Instruments Inc. (Houston). This could be considered a modern, high-tech divining rod used to accomplish underground locating.

Academic Theories on Dowsing

In my research on dowsing, I found both practitioners and nonbelievers, so I pursued my research in the academic arena. I was fortunate to sit down and discuss divining with one of my associates at Virginia's George Mason University, Dr. Mark Houck, PE, professor of civil engineering.

Dr. Houck asked, "If this does work, why don't we see it in textbooks?" He suggested that if water witching were valuable, somebody would have spent a significant amount of time getting an explanation for how it works and turned it into a revenue producing methodology.

He also surmised that perhaps a lot of visual and ambient cues allow a diviner to identify underground features based on ground topography. For instance when a trench is excavated for a pipeline, a slight mound or depression is often left where the pipe was laid. This could be perceptible and thereby influence the diviner's ability to find the pipeline. Dr. Houck suggested that, despite the diviner's claims that an outside force was influencing the divining rods, this ambient recognition influenced the hands to cause a rotation in the rods.

What Do You Think?

The one thing that I learned for sure as I investigated water witching is that about half of the people I spoke with believe in it and half do not. Surveyors are responsible for locating water and related piping beneath the surface whether they employ divining or more high-tech methods. I would like to open this topic up to all readers and field professionals. What method do you use? Have you used dowsing techniques to perform your work? Have you had a contrary experience and offer evidence to debunk dowsing? Please send your comments on whether divining is an art, a science/technology, magical thinking or total bunk to


"The usual justification for such skepticism is that no plausible physical explanation has ever been offered for the stimuli to which a dowser, with his "divining rod," might be responding. When considered objectively, however, a rejection of dowsing simply because physics and physiology cannot provide an adequate mechanism to account for the phenomenon can be interpreted as scientific arrogance. An open-minded counter argument is that the tradition and folklore of dowsing are not based on its theoretical underpinnings but on the claimed successes of its practitioners; and if the method "works," but current science cannot explain it, so much the worse for science!"

-from "Water Dowsing: The "˜Scheunen' Experiments"
by J. T. Enright, Scripps Institution of Oceanography