CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Well driller Randy Gebke usually uses a geology database and other high-tech tools to figure out where to sink new water wells for clients. But if asked, he'll grab two wires, walk across the property, waiting for the wires to cross to find a place to drill.
Gebke is water witching, using an ancient method with a greater connection to superstition than science.
Thousands of wells have gone dry this summer in the worst drought the nation has experienced in decades. Some homeowners are spending as much as $30,000 to have new ones drilled, and Gebke said most in his area expect water witching to be part the deal.
“Over 50 percent of the time in that conversation, they ask do we have a witcher on the crew,” he said. “And my response is, ‘We have a witcher on every crew.'”
Water witching, also called divining or dowsing, dates from before the Middle Ages and involves using a forked stick, metal rod or piece of wire that seems to mysteriously point to water underground. While scientists and professional groups say there is no evidence witching works, some well drillers differ.
“I'm a wire man. … I use two wires, and when they cross, that's where the water usually is,” said Gebke, 56, the general manager of Kohnen Concrete Products in Germantown, Ill.
Doc McClanahan, 46, who owns Doc's Well & Pump Service in Farmington, Mo., quietly acknowledged that he too will witch for water if a customer asks. He favors wild cherry branches for their flexibility.
“You kind of get a feel for it,” McClanahan said. “It'll twist in your hand.”
The National Groundwater Association, a trade group for well drillers, has officially disavowed witching as “totally without scientific merit.”
And scientists who specialize in water are, at best, skeptical.
“I'm not going to dispute it because you hear too many stories,” said Mark Basch, a hydrologist who is head of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources. But, he said, there's no scientific explanation for it.
Witching is an old practice. The U.S. Geological Survey, in a pamphlet on the subject, says cave paintings found in North Africa from 6,000 to 8,000 years ago show someone who appears to be witching for water.
But while witching was common in Europe in the Middle Ages, the Christian church condemned the continuing practice as the work of Satan.