Where Has All the Water Gone
Water witching works like a charm. Or not. Some people call the ancient practice “dowsing.” Others call it “magic.” It works like this; cut a young, but firm, forked branch from a tree- preferably a willow if you’re dowsing for water- and trim it so that it is shaped like a “Y” with each arm or leg about 12 to 18 inches long. Grasp your forked branch with both hands, palms up, each hand holding on to one of the outstretched arms of the Y, and with the leg of the Y pointing out in front of your body like the bowsprit of a sailing ship. Keep your willow “bowsprit” level in front of you as you walk around the area in which you are searching for water. If you are sensitive — and if there is a hidden water deposit below — the witching wand will dip down to point to the underground water source as you pass over.
Archeologists will tell you that people have been divining the presence of water in this way for thousands of years. There are images that depict these dowsers at work carved in the walls of Egyptian tombs and scratched down in antique Chinese etchings. Some people even swear by dowsing as a way to find other hidden resources, like underground veins of gold or lost cell phones. But other people think that dowsers are frauds, or worse. Over the years I’ve asked a number of professional well diggers what they think.
Jack Edsberg dug my newer well twenty five years ago. He was one of four different well diggers I sought bids from, and it was interesting to see how little they varied in what they all said to me. I’ll quote (or paraphrase) Jack and let him speak for all the well diggers I’ve met, because they seemed to speak like a chorus in a Greek tragedy. In fact, the only difference between what any of them said was the price they asked for their services. In the end, I went with Jack Edsberg, not because he was the cheapest, but because he’d also been a local farmer for many years, and I got along well with him.
“Andy,” he said. “It doesn’t really matter if dowsing works or not. If you want an electric pump you’re going to have to dig the well near an existing power drop, because lawyers, guns, and money aren’t enough to get PG&E to extend a new line these days. You’d need lots of time for them to get that done, so if you want water in this life you’ll dig next to an existing power pole. And since the county has a mandatory setback of 25 feet from any property line for any new well, and since this pole is the end of the line for PG&E, you’re going to want to dig here.” And he pointed to the same spot, 30 feet from our property line, 20 feet from the power line, and 10 feet from my house that every other well digger had pointed to. “Also,” he said, “I charge by the foot, whether or not I hit water.”
Well diggers are careful not to promise that they will find water for you. But they’ll usually offer an informed opinion on what they think is going on under the ground. Here too, I found that the well diggers spoke in unison. “We’re going to get some water within the first 50 feet,” Jack said, “but we’re going to drill right past it. It’s just surface water, and we’re aiming for a bigger aquifer that’s around 160 feet down. It’ll have better water and more of it. It’s an aquifer that’s flowing down from the Sierras.” Our house is at about 38 feet elevation and we’re about three miles from the coastline, as the seagull flies, so I’d imagine any water flowing past under our house will seep into the ocean at about 140 feet under the waves. It was surprising- and sobering- to find out our water comes from the Sierra. When you think about it, my farm is pretty close to the end of the line for this underground river, and there are LOTS of pumps “upstream” between our fields and the Sierra snowpack.
Jack did hit a modest flow of water through a vein of gravel about 25 feet below the surface and then the drill bit into a deep and dense layer of clay. He poured a plug of concrete around the well shaft to keep any of the surface water from draining down into any deeper aquifer. At around 160 feet below the surface he hit the first trace of the water he was looking for and he stopped drilling at 250ft. With the pump installed I was drawing twenty gallons a minute from 160 feet, with a 70 foot column of water below. Everything went just as every well digger had projected. They get around, and an old well digger, like Jack, has been to many, many wells over the landscape and over the years as they do their work digging or repairing wells, and they keep notes. Sometimes talking to them can be eye-opening.
During the last drought I had an emergency with my newer well, and I feared I’d run out of water. Jack had passed away, but the well digger that took my call could have been his brother. “It’s a pump problem,” he told me after some preliminary tests. “You’re looking good water-wise with about 10 gallons a minute, pumping from 180 feet down.”
That didn’t sound so good to me since we’d been pumping twice as much per minute from 20 feet higher twenty years before. So our water table had dropped considerably. I was telling the well service guy all about my worries, but he put a hand up and told me to relax.
“I just came from a job off of San Miguel Canyon, where it comes into the Valley by the railroad, and the fellow there said his pump had burned out. The pump was fine but his well was dry- and they were pumping from 750 feet.”
That was alarming news. I have farmed out in that neighborhood, and that area used to be a wetlands, crawling with crawdads, frogs, and turtles. It’s my understanding that those wetlands were drained for farming by the Slavic immigrants who came into the Watsonville area in the late 1800s from the Adriatic. The flooded land was cheap because the Gringos didn’t want it for their cattle pasture and it didn’t have redwoods for logging, so the Slavs bought it, drained it, and were rewarded with some of the richest farmland you can imagine. You still see the Slavic names all over town; Scuritch, Marinovitch, Matulich, Pavitch, etc. Their ancestors laughingly call themselves the “Sons of Vitches”, and quite a few of them are still farming.
In 1990 I was farming out in that neighborhood and our farming neighbor across the road was a very successful conventional grower named Bukonovitch. His label was “Boogie Woogie,” and his cartons had the outline of a saxophone printed on the sides. But “Boogie,” as he was known, lost all his jazz cool when he found out that we were growing vegetables organically right across the road from him. “You can’t do that,” he hollered at us, all red-faced and agitated. He was worried that we’d “infect” his crops with all the pests we were breeding and harboring. Boogie thought that organic growing couldn’t be done and we were dirtbag hippies for even trying. There was no reasoning with him. “But we’re doing it!” we replied. Nowadays organic farming is widespread across the Pajaro Valley. But clearly water supply is a looming problem, even if the crisis is underground and out of sight.
It would be good if everybody learned more about the security and stability of their own water supply. Now that I know my water table has dropped by a foot a year I’m certainly more aware of water and how much I’m using. We are not going to have enough water in the future for everybody in California to do what they like, so controls are inevitable and hard policy choices will have to be made. Does it make sense to use the state’s scarce water resources to irrigate alfalfa for an overseas market? Or, why should we, the public, watch as the water table in the Central Valley is drained to grow almonds for export by a few large landowners, when that water might be more equitably shared among numerous interests, including communities and wildlife? Or, have we ever looked honestly at what the impact is on our environment of turning so much “water into wine.” In a future newsletter I’ll tell you a counterintuitive and happy story about our older well.
© 2022 Essay by Andy Griffin
Photo by Starling Linden