The art and science of searching for water

The United States Geological Survey has an interesting FAQ report on dowsing — the practice of attempting to locate underground water with divining rods. It's got some interesting history and comparisons between dowsing and modern hydrology. The part on evidence for and against dowsing, though, is pretty sparse. If you want more on that, The Skeptic's Dictionary has some deeper analysis. The basic gist — what little research there has been suggests the successes of dowsing aren't any better than chance. (Via an interesting piece by Mary Brock at Skepchick about dowsing in the wine industry.)


  1. Your post made me discover old but appealing news. In a deadly scam, a UK company has sold divining rods as explosive detectors to Iraq, Thailand and other countries. 40000$ apiece for a free rotating telescopic antenna and a fake electronic circuit. Many dead after failing to detect explosives.

    “The training manual for the device says it can even, with the right card, detect elephants, humans and 100 dollar bills.”

    Warned of the scam, the Thai government still believes they made the right choice buying the devices for 200M$. Their army is still using them.

  2. The interesting thing about dowsing is that there is no plausible mechanism by which it could work.  And since any good scientist can’t imagine that it could possibly work, it has received almost no study.  Why waste research dollars on something everybody already knows is woo?

    1. There’s also a plausible reason why you could think it works, even if it doesn’t – like the Ouija board, any small movement or change in posture is exaggerated to cause a visible effect, so you might not even know you are doing it. Add that to confirmation bias and the fairly good chance of hitting water anyway, and you have a good reason why even some skeptics could believe it. If we discount the possible explanations that people give (which may or may not have some basis in fact, but anyway) and if it is seen to have some success, it could be that skilled dowsers are actually spotting subtle patterns on the surface and changing their posture accordingly.

  3. I picture my father as the ultimate skeptic, but he swears dowsing works. He needed to find water when he had a house built and he figured “What the heck, this guy’s not charging much.” Sure enough, the guy found water (as did a different dowser a few years later). My father even tried it and it worked for him.

    All that being said, I’m still a skeptic.

    1. The local leak detectors use it all the time. They found my long lost septic tank in about three minutes.

  4. I worked in land surveying for a few years, and when we wanted to ‘rough’ find underground water pipes, we’d dowse. Simply take two pieces of heavy steel wire (from those little orange flags that we located things with, bend a slight L, and hold them loosely, one in each hand in front of you like two pistols..walking slowly across the path of where you thought the pipes could be and they’d angle out when over the pipe. The idea was that moving water creates a slight magnetic charge to the pipes (or the water itself) and the steel rods reacted to that with the holder as the ‘ground’ I suppose. It worked every time we tried it. 

    1. When I was discussing this with my father, that’s the only cause within the realm of possibility I could come up with – magnetic fields. However, at least one of the guys said the best tool was some sort of still-green wood. I’m not sure if it was a specific type of wood, or just green. That doesn’t make sense to me at all. Apparently, someone who’s good at dowsing can actually estimate the relative size of the water source, another thing that was demonstrated to my father. I guess I’ll have to give dowsing a try some time.

    2. I once witnessed successful dowsing using this method. Then I thought “Come on, there’s underground water almost anywhere in the country.”
      But if it were to be more than luck, I wouldn’t go with the magnetic field theory. I don’t believe running water could create a magnetic field powerful enough to move a piece of junk held in a hand (while not being readable by a magnetometer). I find physical vibrations more plausible. Moving water creates low frequency vibrations transmitted through the ground to the feet of the dowser, who, consciously or not, reacts by changing his posture. Since whatever he holds is in a very unstable state (like rotating around a vertical axis with mass not spread equally around), any slight motion of the dowser’s hands results in larger motion of the rod.

      The luck hypothesis still holds, though.

      1. “Moving water creates low frequency vibrations transmitted through the ground to the feet of the dowser, who, consciously or not, reacts by changing his posture.”

        That’s the best hypothesis I’ve heard so far.

        1. That wouldn’t work for the septic tank, but it’s possible that there’d be some vibratory clues from a big, iron, half-empty tank.

  5. In most places, if you dig pretty much anywhere you’ll hit water eventually. We put a geothermal heat pump in a few years ago. Atlanta sits on top of a giant plug of granite (relic of the volcanism that opened up the Atlantic ocean) which isn’t permeable rock. Nevertheless, when they drilled two 400 foot wells in the back yard for heat exchangers, we hit water. It was a gusher too.

  6. My explanation has always been something like the voids/difference in density causes some variation in magnetic field, which is subconsciously detected by the dowser. The dowsing rod it just used to amplify the reactions (muscle twitches etc.) of the dowsers into something noticeable.

    On top of this, the dowser might also be subconsciously noticing variation in geography and surface conditions which indicate the possibility of water/pipes etc., and the dowsing rod amplifies their reactions.

  7. I was once involved in a playground construction project that involved drilling some holes for posts.  There was a culvert emptying into a nearby stream and someone from the city came out to mark where it ran underground so we wouldn’t drill into it.  First he started with a metal detector, walking in a straight line from where the culvert came out.  But the metal detector kept indicating that the pipe jogged over a few feet after a yard or so. This made him unhappy.  He kept checking the result over and over and finally went out to his truck to get a dowsing rod.  The rod confirmed that the pipe ran straight as he supposed, so he marked the ground in a straight line and went on his way.

    It may come as a shock to some that the project was delayed by the need to repair the pipe after it was accidentally drilled into.  It seems it jogged over a few feet after a yard or so.

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