Monday, October 5, 2015

Water Witch

 (Image from here)
The highway to Oroville, a small town in California’s Central Valley, runs into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. As the road and the temperature climb, the neon lights of the valley’s box stores give way to orchards. Before the weather changed, this was a good place for fruit. Along the highway, hand-painted posters flash: ‘Fresh! Peaches’. The town was founded during the Gold Rush, and although today it’s home to more farmers than miners, it’s still a place where people search for what they don’t have. ‘Severe drought,’ highway signs blink. ‘Limit outdoor watering.’ There’s been no rain here since April, and the land is so dry even the moonlight is dusty. I’ve travelled 3,000 miles to California looking for a woman looking for water. I’ve come to a desert.

Sharron Hope, I’ve heard, can find water underground. As a dowser, she uses tools as simple as a stick to determine where to place a well. Holding a forked branch, Hope can tell if she is approaching a buried spring because she will feel these tools move in her hands. She can even estimate how many feet to dig and how many gallons per minute the finished hole will produce. She’s right so regularly that excavators often call her before breaking ground.
Of course, there are people who doubt Hope’s abilities. According to the United States Geological Survey: ‘The natural explanation of “successful” water dowsing is that in many areas water would be hard to miss.’ But the state is now entering its fourth year without enough rain, and this summer struggling farmers will let 620,000 acres lie fallow, losing an estimated $5.7 billion dollars. As increasingly desperate Californians turn to dubious and expensive long-term projects like piping water 1,400 miles from Alaska or building a billion‑dollar desalination plant in San Diego, dowsing for a well looks downright sensible. Hope’s become one of the few people sure of their answers, and the appeal of that certainty is easy to understand. The more difficult question is: how, in the middle of this century’s worst drought, is she still turning up water?

Hope agrees to explain over breakfast and suggests we meet at Oroville’s Gold Country Casino and Hotel. Just after sunrise, the parking lot is filled with dusty pickups. The farmers inside might have more of a chance at a jackpot than rain. The waterfall is closed for construction and the slot machines sing. Hope is waiting outside the café with a large map, a ruler and a pendulum – a long crystal on a silver chain. Dowsers use these tools to answer questions the same way one might use an Ouija board, by holding them and concentrating until they move one way for yes, and another for no, pointing their owner in the right direction.

We sit at a greasy vinyl booth. Hope pulls out a bird’s‑eye view of a client’s property and holds her pendulum over it. When the tool swings, she marks the spot with a black Sharpie. ‘Where it circles, that means there’s two water veins,’ Hope says. She’ll double-check her results in person. ‘You get on the land, and then you just concentrate.’ When the tools move, Hope knows she’s in the right spot.

Like dowsers, geologists look for water by preparing a map of the land. But their cartography focuses on the physical terrain, tracking where different kinds of rock come to the surface and plotting historical well data. Radar can reveal fractures in the ground where water might flow. Geologists combine this data for a pretty good guess at where underground aquifers might lie. ‘Geologists get a black‑and‑white printout that goes hundreds of feet down and shows you the layers of rock and openings where water might be,’ Hope says. ‘But they can’t actually tell you if there’s water.’ She took graduate hydrogeology courses at Chico State University 25 miles away, and she says that the more she learned, the more she thought: ‘I might as well go dowse. It saves people money and it’s just as accurate.’

However popular dowsing may be, the US Geological Survey takes pains to point out that it is not a science. Hope says: ‘If you call a geologist, it’ll cost you $2,000 a day.’ By comparison, she charges a one-time fee of $250 for a well-siting. Despite the differences in her methods, she works regularly with real estate agents and drillers, and the drought has multiplied her business. David Munch, an excavator who digs wells throughout the Central Valley, says he calls her anytime he has a client in the foothills. Her results speak for themselves: Hope has found dozens of wells this year.
You can read the rest of this fascinating Aeon article here.

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