- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 15, 2002

HARRISONBURG, Va. (AP) With hundreds of wells drying up in the Shenandoah Valley, some people are turning to a practice dating to medieval Europe to quench their thirst for water: dowsing.
While many scientists and well drillers dismiss the practice, some people in rural areas insist on having their land witched for water sources before calling a driller.
Dowsers or water witches with copper pipes, brass rods or Y-shaped branches claim to be able to find underground aquifers.
Rockingham County farmer Nelson Miller sought out a dowser two years ago after persistent dry conditions diminished the water flow from his four wells.
Ralph Shirk found a spot, and the water stream from it has been strong and steady since, Mr. Miller said.
"I didn't spend any money anyhow, and most people around here use them," said Mr. Miller, who raises cattle and turkeys just east of Harrisonburg.
Mr. Shirk is a dairy farmer in Dale Enterprise, near Mr. Miller's farm.
One way Mr. Shirk finds water is by holding one end of a brass welding rod parallel to the ground and walking across the property. When the other end of the rod bounces up and down, he has found water, he said.
Another of Mr. Shirk's methods is to hold loosely in each hand a piece of 2-inch-thick copper pipe. The pieces are bent into an "L" shape. He points them forward, parallel to each other. When he walks over subterranean water, the pipes cross each other and form an "X."
How does it work?
"You tell me, and then we'll both know," Mr. Shirk said, laughing.
Linden Gochenour, a dairy farmer in Woodstock, claims to find wells using pieces of wire hanger in a similar way that Mr. Shirk uses copper pipes.
Dowsers also use a Y-shaped branch of a young tree or a fruit tree. When the witcher walks over water, the branch bends downward, Mr. Shirk and Mr. Gochenour say.
Both dowsers say they have never had a false reading.
But well drillers and scientists in the area have plenty of stories about spots that were misdowsed.
Churchville Well Drilling & Pump Services Inc. recently drilled for a property owner for whom a witcher had divined water 125 feet underground, said employee Debbie Blackwell.
"We drilled for 700 feet and never found any water," Miss Blackwell said.
Scott Eaton, a geology professor at James Madison University, consults with landowners in his spare time to find subterranean water. He uses existing maps to determine the type of rock formations beneath the surface.
Limestone dissolves easily and can yield a strong water stream. Shale barely yields any, Mr. Eaton said.
He also uses aerial photographs of the landscape to look for evidence of cracks beneath the earth's surface. A site where cracks intersect is a strong candidate for a water source.
Mr. Eaton said he has never failed to find water, though a small percentage of the time the flow has not been as much as the property owner needed.
"I've never had a totally dry hole," he said. "I've been very blessed in that aspect."


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