The Secret World of Water Witches,
Dowsers and Diviners
By Andrew Kolasinski
Four years ago, Bruce Campbell lost the power. The ability to divine buried
objects was an asset in the drainage and plumbing business. He could find
pipes and cables without digging up entire yards.
With a couple of bent coat hangers held in front of him, Bruce could
“feel the pull”. Confidence in his unusual abilities gave his business a
competitive edge. His rivals laughed about it, but the customers were
intrigued, and Bruce had proven its effectiveness over and over. Then
suddenly it was gone. He directed his backhoe to dig, and there was nothing
Dowsing, divining or water witching, as it’s also called, is used in a
variety of trades like plumbing, well drilling, and mine prospecting. It
attracts extreme opinions; you either believe in it or don’t.
The word "dowsing" first appeared in 1650 in an essay by philosopher John
Locke. Locke modified the Cornish word for goddess, "dowsys" and come up
with dowsing. Dowsing is mentioned in the Old Testament; Moses dowsed
successfully for water in the desert. The ancient Egyptians, and the Greeks
recorded dowsing feats as a daily occurrence. In the middle-ages it was
practiced throughout Europe, to find water and minerals. By the 19th century
divining for ore deposits was an accepted part of mine prospecting.
Dowsing was widely practiced in the new world. There was a lot to be
discovered, from household wells, municipal water supplies, to deposits of
gold and other minerals. A dowsing culture evolved in New England and in the
west. Before his political career, Herbert Hoover, the 31st President of the
United States was a mine engineer and a noted dowser.
Gold veins, springs of water, or buried pipes are the common subjects for
the diviner’s quest. Other, more obscure goals include buried treasure,
graves and archaeological sites, lost objects, and criminal investigations.
One branch of dowsing, pendulum divination, broadens the search area. A free
moving pendulum is suspended over a map. The diviner pin-points the location
on the map, before refining the search on the ground.
Dowsers sometimes use the term radionics. According to their website, the
Radionics and Dowsing Institute of Canada, “conducts research and offers
radionic services on a limited basis. It can serve as a referral source for
graduates who wish assistance in establishing or expanding their practice
but unless permission is given the Institute never gives out the identity of
its students, graduates, clients, or customers to anyone for any reason
given the controversial nature of radionics.”
Diviners have a variety of explanations for their craft. Bruce Campbell, the
divining plumber, believes he was able to find buried water pipes and sewer
lines because the human body is mostly water, through molecular gravity he
could detect his own elements. Other diviners dwell on magnetic and electric
fields. The most baffling explanations speak in terms of human auras and
There is no scientifically conducted test by any legitimate institution that
can verify or refute that the practice works. Recent studies conducted by
the Norwegian Army, the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute and the Norwegian
Red Cross mountain rescue division attempted to use dowsing to locate
victims of avalanches. Objective test procedures were established, but the
results were “not significant” and dowsing was dropped from the rescue
Despite the lack of solid evidence that dowsing works, people swear by it.
When Barry Alldred built his dream house in the rural Cowichan Valley he
needed a water supply. The well company did a geological analysis and began
drilling. They found water, but not enough for the household’s needs. They
drilled again, with the same result. The cost was raising with no positive
Barry said, “the foreman made it clear that he didn’t believe in dowsing,
but admitted that lots of people found their wells that way. He gave me a
guy’s phone number and left it to me to hire him. The dowser walked onto the
lot and tore a branch off a birch tree. He walked around pointing to
different spots. At each one he’d say how deep the water was and how many
gallons per minute.” After finding a dozen inadequate springs the dowser
pointed to a spot and said there was 60 gallons per minute at a depth of 160
feet. Barry said the well contractor drilled there, and at 155 feet found a
spring, which yielded 55 gallons per minute, well beyond what was needed for
The American Society of Dowsers, on their website say, “The premier
consideration is simply this - dowsing works. When inventor Thomas A.
Edison, was once asked, ‘What is electricity?’ He replied: ‘I don't know
either - but it’s there - so let’s use it’.” The society points to the
countless instances where dowsers have succeeded in finding water sources
for domestic wells.
But, skeptics say that such success is no mystery. A publication of the
Department of Earth Science at University of Waterloo says, “... in settled
parts of the world it is not possible to dig a deep hole or drill a hole,
without encountering groundwater.”
Despite the lack of scientific verification, the antidotal evidence for
dowsing seems overwhelming. Most well drilling contractors have affiliated
water witches. Their official policy is that their customer might want
advise from a diviner, but the drillers themselves won’t confirm or deny the
reliability of these practitioners.
Jim Fyfe is a geological engineer and a well driller. His company, Fyfe’s
Well Drilling has outlets throughout western Canada. Jim believes that,
despite the lack of scientific evidence in favour of dowsing, the jury is
Jim said most commercial customers hire a consulting geologist, but
homeowners want to hedge their bets, and often use the less expensive
services of a water witch. 50 per cent of all his residential wells are
drilled with the help of dowsers.
Jim said, “There are two types of aquifers: overburdens, which are found in
sand and gravel, and bedrock cracks. With overburdens you can drill anywhere
and eventually find water. In bedrock cracks the water is more localized,
and more elusive. This is where we have the most need for dowsers.”
Jim said, “An average residential well costs $5,000 to $10,000, and there is
no guarantee of success. There is always a chance of not finding water. We
know dowsers in different areas. They usually charge about $50. Some just
mark the spot, others can predict the depth and the quantity”
Clearly Jim Fyfe is a believer. His company will drill where a diviner says,
and he admitted that, “a few of us here do it.” He’s convinced the practice
has proven its value, “Dowsing is certainly a part of the industry. It’s
been around forever. A recent study at a German university concluded there
was a better ratio of success with the help of dowsers. In my opinion the
act of dowsing is not an imagined reaction. Some people have a physical
reaction to the presence of groundwater.” said Jim.
Other well drillers don’t share Jim’s open-mindedness. His competitors,
Drillwell go out of their way not to dig at spots chosen by dowsers. They
rely exclusively on geological surveys and historical research. Jason Slade
from Drillwell said his company considers dowsing to be, “just hocus-pocus.”
Red of Red Williams Well Drilling believes dowsing is, “folklore, but from a
driller’s perspective, we have to pick a site somewhere. If the customer
feels good about it, we say go ahead and hire a water witch.”
Magnus Colvin, or Collie as he’s known in the business, began dowsing for
dollars about five years ago. He always had a feel for it. “As a kid, when I
turned on the light switch, the bulb would often blow. The dowsing started
innocently. One day I just felt like trying it. I use two bent, one-eighth
inch stainless steel rods. When I go over water they swing.” said Collie.
He’s retired from a lifetime of logging, and says at 73 years-old, he
doesn’t need the money. Collie just wants to be helpful, and to put his
power to use. “If I can get my gas money I’m happy.” he said.
Collie has succeeded in finding about a dozen residential wells around
Nanaimo. Drilling contractors appreciate that he doesn’t make a nuisance of
himself. Some water witches try to take over the job site.
Relying on dowsing can have consequences. When a dowser is wrong there’s no
second chance. Drilling a costly, dry well creates die-hard skeptics.
After Bruce Campbell lost the power of divination, business began to fall
off. Expenses went up as he dug for pipe lines at random. Two years after
his divining abilities stopped, Bruce went bankrupt. He laid off his six
employees, sold his backhoes and trucks, and finally he lost his house.
Today he’s back on his feet, doing small drainage and plumbing jobs. He has
no staff or heavy equipment but he gets by.
At his latest job-site, a ritzy condominium with a backed-up sewer line,
seniors in golf clothes cut a wide berth around Bruce in his muddy demins. He
leans against his shovel and says, “I think I’ll get some rods and give it
another try. You never know, maybe it’ll come back to me.”