Meet the Water Witches of California

Wednesday: The demand for nonscientific water-finding services shows the desperation of farmers during a deepening drought.,


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ImageRob Thompson dowsing for water at a vineyard in Napa Valley on Monday.
Rob Thompson dowsing for water at a vineyard in Napa Valley on Monday.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Good morning.

I first heard about the occult practice of water divining in Australia.

There, much like in California, heat, drought and wildfires ravage the landscape. In the country’s most recent drought, farmers contended with shrinking aquifers and drying-up rivers, while cities came close to running out of water. The impacts of climate change wreaked havoc on the environment, threatening Australia’s very way of life.

These similarities were clear after I arrived in America last month, only to be met with a blistering heat wave across the Western United States that melted roads and obliterated previous heat records. In Sonoma County, the region where I live, farmers’ taps are being switched off, and vintners are digging ever deeper for water.

The situation is desperate. And I wondered: Who might benefit from that desperation?

“I don’t want to say business is booming, or business is good, but business is very, very, very busy,” Augie Guardino, a second-generation well-driller based in Santa Clara County told me. “When business is good for us, it’s not good for the rest of the community.”

He’s “similar to a mortician,” he said.

Likewise, Rob Thompson said he was swamped.

“This is my busiest I think I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. Thompson 53, is a water diviner, or a water witch: He says he can locate groundwater in the fractures of the earth’s bedrock, using just two rods and a hunch.

The method is thought to have come into vogue in the Middle Ages in Europe, and is “totally without scientific merit,” according to the National Ground Water Association, a group of experts, including hydrogeologists, that promotes responsible water use.

But that has not stopped farmers and land managers from hiring Thompson, a second-generation water diviner based in Santa Rosa, who formerly co-owned one of Northern California’s largest well-drilling companies and claims to have found thousands of groundwater sites across the state.


A pendulum.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

Thompson hammered a stake into the ground to indicate a possible well site, while his wife, Robyne, noted the location.Credit…Jim Wilson/The New York Times

“This is the worst drought I’ve seen in my lifetime,” Thompson said. “In California, we’re going deeper and deeper,” he said of the wells people were drilling to access water.

Just a two-hour drive from the nation’s technology capital of Silicon Valley, some vineyards continue to lean on Thompson’s work.

“I haven’t ever used a geologist to find water,” said Johnnie White, the operations manager of Pina Vineyard Management, which runs dozens of vineyards in Napa Valley. Still, White acknowledged, “I find it all very far-fetched.”

Last week, I spent the day with Thompson at one of those vineyards, which was burned in last year’s wildfires, and is flanked by scorched hills and charcoal trees. Now, the vineyard’s wells are going dry.

“It’s a disaster,” said Davie Pina, the owner of the vineyard management company, as he stood on the cracking earth. “Just what we need,” he added, “after another disaster.”

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Harvey Weinstein, who was convicted in New York in 2020, was transported to California on Tuesday to face a new round of sex crime charges.Credit…Desiree Rios for The New York Times

Compiled by Steven Moity and Mariel Wamsley


Large amounts of trash and plastic refuse collected in Ballona Creek after first major rain storm in Culver City.Credit…Citizen of the Planet/UIG, via Getty Images
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