Water witchery brings magic to Placer County well searches

Auburn dowser wields steel rods to find well-worthy dig sites
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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Wendell Ellis grips the ends of two narrow strands of steel, one in each fist.

The ends are pointing straight ahead. He – or more correctly “they” – are in a search of a fissure in the rock maybe 100 or 200 feet down that could hold water.

As Ellis walks, the shiny wands start to move toward his chest in tandem, crossing over and making an “X.” Ellis said he has not manipulated the metal. Instead, the metal rods have found a connection between his body and what he believes are metal deposits on the sides of the rock fissures that could hold water.

A veteran of 35 years in the well drilling business, Ellis can be called a dowser or a practitioner of water witchery. A Christian with no interest in devil worship, he has a more practical reason to wield the metal rods.

Ellis is on the front end of a well-drilling rig. His decisions – and the power of the rods and whatever they’re finding – will mean a successful well for property owners who are clients of Auburn’s Diamond Well Drilling.

Ellis said he really has no firm idea on what is happening out in a field as the rods do their work. He theorizes that it’s a magnetic or a metallic field that is making them move. But he does know that over the years he has used the rods, he’s had an 80.5 percent success rate in getting customers their water wells. 

“A person’s body will pick up the field,” Ellis said, in explaining what he thinks is taking place on his walks for water. “The rods are like a gas gauge, an indicator.”

Dowsing, which is also called water witching, doodlebugging and divining, is believed to have originated in Germany during the 15th century, initially to find metals. By the late 19th century, it was known to have crossed over to the United States for use in finding water wells. The simple, L-shaped rods, like the ones Ellis uses, are in common use today.

On Tuesday, Maryann Mealhow watched as Ellis worked to find spots to drill for a well on her rural Auburn property.

“All the well people seem to do it,” Mealhow said. “There must be something to it or he wouldn’t be walking around the property with metal rods.”

Ellis’ boss, Diamond Well Drilling managing general partner Dave Fulton, is a skeptic.

Fulton recalled that when he first entered the business, he drilled for wells in a subdivision and never missed in finding water for a well.

“I really though I had this gift,” he said.

But when he was asked to drill on a property adjacent to the subdivision, he couldn’t hit water on the parcel. When the owner was able to secure an easement to drill closer to the subdivision, he found water again.

“The moral of the story is, I wasn’t God’s gift to witching and No. 2, water is where you find it,” Fulton said.

Fulton said that “99.9 percent of the time,” people are comfortable with the idea of water witchery.

“From a scientific point of view, nobody’s been able to demonstrate that it works,” Fulton said. “But most people want it because they like the idea of magic. My answer is that I can give you witchcraft or give you science.”

The science includes 3-D aerial photographs and hydrological analysis to find possible well sites.

Fulton said that he offers no guarantees that using the rods will actually find a well location.

“The foothills are probably one of the hardest areas,” he said. “There’s one chance in 10 you’re going to drill a dry hole, especially in the bad areas.”

Call him a dowser or a water witch, Ellis said he’s comfortable using his rods and making a little magic in the foothills.

“One guy thought it was satanistic, in all those years,” he said. “I tried to tell him that I don’t believe in that. That all I’m trying to do is find a crack down there – an area that most likely will supply the water. The whole thing is to cut the odds.”