Water Dowsing Works (Even If We Don’t Know Why)

Dowsing is a centuries-old practice of finding water that—even without the support of much scientific evidence—flourishes even today.

by Heather Smith Thomas
PHOTO: Maria Uspenskaya/Shutterstock

When I was a kid, my brother had a friend who showed us how to locate water using bent metal rods held loosely in his fists. Walking with the long ends pointed forward, when he came to a certain spot, the rods swung around and pointed back toward him.

Later, my husband, Lynn, became really good at this  He first witnessed “water witching,” commonly called water dowsing, in 1955 on the ranch where he grew up. One of his relatives used a forked willow to locate the origins of a spring that provided the house with water.

Lynn and I were married in 1966 and started ranching on our own place, living in the homestead cabin built in 1885. Water for this old house was provided by a hand-dug well that was short of water. In 1970, we decided to put in a deeper well.

“The well driller determined where to drill and showed me his techniques,” Lynn says. “After locating the underground water with a forked willow, he figured out how deep it was by using a willow stick about 3 feet long. He held it by the small end and let it bob up and down until it stopped bobbing and swung side-to-side. The more times it bobs up and down, the deeper the water.”

Lynn doesn’t know how water dowsing works, but he says it does work. When locating water sources for wells, he says he’s been able to predict the depth about 95 percent of the time.

Some wells have been less than 100 feet. But many have been 300 feet deep or more.

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Read more: Ever wonder why there needs to be a pump at the bottom of a deep well?

Divining Rods

When dowsing for water, Lynn uses two steel welding rods, bent in L shape. He holds them with the long ends level and apart from one another—holding them loosely so they can swivel freely.

When they move, they aren’t attracted to one another. They are attracted to his body and point back toward him. You can use just one rod, and it works just as well as if you use two.

Dowsing rods point toward you when you are directly over water. They swing away from you when you walk past it.

“When I locate water for someone, I show them how to hold the rods and try it,” he says. “When it works for them, it’s very convincing. It doesn’t work for everyone, but the ones it does work for, it makes a believer of them. They know they are not doing something to make those rods move.”

Our new well supplied good water for our house (no more surface water that could be contaminated) and plenty of water for filling water troughs for our cattle. Then Lynn began locating wells for family members, neighbors and friends. One rancher was so grateful he paid Lynn $100.

That situation was interesting because the rancher had already hired a well driller who drilled 400 feet and didn’t hit water. In frustration, he asked Lynn to locate water. Lynn found a spot just 8 feet away from the dry hole. The well driller drilled 120 feet at that spot and got 18 gallons a minute.

When the grateful rancher paid him, Lynn realized his services were valuable.  He saved people thousands of dollars, not having dry holes, and so started charging a fee. Word got around, and more people asked him to find water.

water dowsing witching
Heather Smith Thomas

Where Water Is Scarce

Some regions have underground aquifers. People can drill wells just about anywhere and hit water.

In other areas, underground water sources are few and far between—just streams, some large, some small—coursing through the layers of rocks. Some are close to the surface—perhaps only 40 to 100 feet deep—while others are several hundred feet deep.

They also flow different directions.

When he’s asked to locate a well, Lynn tries to find a spot where two underground streams cross, at different depths, he says. This gives more chance to find adequate water, at two levels. Then if the driller hits one and only gets 2 or 3 gallons per minute (not enough to service a home), he can continue drilling until he hits the second vein.

“One example: I located a well for one person on top of a hill,” Lynn says. “They drilled 100 feet and got 3 gallons per minute and went down another 100 feet and got 9 more gallons per minute. If they’d stopped at the first level, it would not be a viable well. Combining the two levels made a good well.”

Location, Location

Water is not always where you’d expect. It doesn’t seem to correlate with soil type or rock formations on the surface. You don’t always know what’s under the ground.

“Geologists may have an idea, but this still doesn’t tell you where the seams of water might be,” he says. “If I were going to pay for a well—which today in our area costs about $90 per foot to drill—I’d want someone to locate the water.”

General logic is that you’d find water more often in the valley floor than on a high mountain. Or you may find it next to a river rather than on the uplands far from a river, but this isn’t always true. Some underground streams pop out as springs near the tops of high mountains, possibly following the folds, layers and up-thrusts when the mountains were formed.

It’s possible to find water sometimes at high elevations, while some attempts to drill wells near rivers have failed.

A case in point was when a person tried to drill a well within 30 feet of the river that ran past their property. The well driller went down more than 100 feet and didn’t hit water.

“It was the same driller who saw my success locating water just a few feet from a dry hole. So he recommended they call me,” Lynn says. “I located a spot 20 feet farther away from the river, and the driller hit 40 gallons per minute when he went down 30 feet. That well driller didn’t believe in water dowsing originally but now calls me whenever someone wants him to drill a well.”

Read more: You can also collect rainwater and store it in IBC containers for farm use.

Locating a Well Site

First, Lynn locates water using welding rods to determine if there is any water in a certain area. On some properties, there are very few options.

Some real estate agents in our valley ask him to check properties before offering them for sale, to make sure there is water. And sometimes people who are interested in a certain property ask him to find water before they decide to buy it.

“I use welding rods first, to see if there’s water, and where, or several possible locations on the property,” he says. “After finding a spot, I use a forked willow to see if there’d be enough water for a good well. The welding rods locate water but don’t tell you how much. It could be a tiny seep or huge underground stream. The willow gives you a feel for how much is there. If it pulls hard, you know there’s a lot of water. If it’s just a small pull, there probably isn’t much.

“You hold welding rods loosely, so they can swing freely and not drag on your index finger when they move (the rod free-floats). But you hold the willow tightly so you can determine how much it pulls. The ends of the forked branch are held one in each hand, with your wrists and palms facing upward, and the stem of the Y pointing straight ahead and slightly upward.”

This way you can hold tightly and feel the willow pull on your hands and wrists.

Branch size and thickness don’t matter—whatever feels right. When holding the willow branches, your arms are close to your body with elbows resting against your hips.

This gives a solid base of support to hold the willow securely and firmly as you walk slowly over the area to be checked.


When the willow twists, the part pointed forward and upward suddenly pulls down toward the ground. The pull is very obvious.

“If it’s a small willow and you are holding it really tight, it can actually take the bark off the willow where you are gripping it,” he says.

For the bobber stick (to determine depth of water), Lynn uses a dowsing willow about 3 feet long but small and light. “The small end, where you are holding it, is less than 1/4 inch in diameter,” he says.

The heavy end points toward the ground, held about a foot off the ground, and it starts bobbing up and down. Lynn counts each time it bobs, and each bob represents about a foot of depth. He just counts until it stops bobbing up and down and starts moving side to side—which indicates where the water is.

If it’s a thick vein of water, the stick will swing side-to-side many times. But if the stick only swings side-to-side a couple times, you know there isn’t as much water there.

“If it stops going side-to-side and starts bobbing again, this indicates another vein of water below that one and you can count the bobs to see how deep it is (when it stops and goes side-to-side again),” he says. “If there’s more water on down, it will start over and seek the next one.

“There are usually only two levels, because I’ve located where they cross. But on occasion there might be more.”

Water, Water

When the driller gets down to the first layer, the amount of water may be adequate and they don’t need to drill any deeper. But if it’s only a few gallons per minute and the client wants more, you know there is a deeper layer.

The well driller can keep going, and you can tell him roughly how deep it might be.

Probably any kind of willow will work for the forked stick and the bobbing stick. Lynn uses willow because it’s plentiful, but he’s also used chokecherry branches. Some people use hazel wood, but it doesn’t grow where we live.

You can also use apple or peach branches for water dowsing.

Lynn likes to use a green willow, but even a relatively dry one will work. He often uses the same willow branch many times during a summer, occasionally cutting a new one when the old one gets really dry. Even willows cut in the winter work fine.

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2020 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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