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WEBER CANYON - On the north slope of the canyon in the mountains high above the Weber River, Shem Jessop carefully stepped through the undergrowth while patiently waiting for the rod in his hands to move.
As he zigzagged among the bushes, Jessop finally received a signal. The thin wire held like handlebars slowly tipped and pointed toward the ground.
"There it is," he said, turning to the two men - one the landowner and the other a well driller - who had followed him up the slope. Jessop sliced the air with his open hand and gestured toward a small mountain pond in the distance. "Your underground stream runs right through here. And there's plenty of water."
Utah's long drought may be over but the state's booming economy is now making it easier for landowners to afford the thousands of dollars necessary to drill water wells on their properties. And that means Utah dowsers, such as Jessop, are getting called to survey properties up to a dozen times a month.
While some may question the wisdom of relying on the twitching of a willow branch or the swing of a piano-wire divining rod to locate a drill site, those who practice the ancient art of "water witching" are as much in demand as ever.
Jessop dislikes the term "witching" because it connotes something magical or paranormal, and yet he lacks a scientific explanation for what happens when he walks over a body of underground water with his divining rod. "I do know, though, that I'm not the one making it move."
Divining also can be used to locate crude oil and natural gas deposits, Jessop said. "I recently surveyed some property for a couple of gentlemen and told them there was oil present. And they told me that my information was consistent with the geophysical surveys of the area."
The practice of trying to locate water or other minerals through the use of a divining device, which can be a forked stick, pendulum or a bent metal wire, is centuries old. The first written references to water witching date back to the 16th century in southern Europe.
Jessop was introduced to the ancient practice more than 30 years ago when he accompanied a dowser into Rose Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains on the western edge of the Salt Lake Valley.
"He used a live willow branch with a vessel of water tied to it," Jessop said. "And not knowing much about it, I cut myself a green willow stick and tried it myself. It took awhile to learn, but eventually I figured it out and discovered I had the ability."
Skeptics of dowsing abound, but in Utah acceptance of the practice is more widespread. It is said that Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, practiced the craft, said Bambi Richardson, president of Utah's Great Basin Chapter of The American Society of Dowsers.
"There are those who believe it is worthwhile and those who don't," she said. "And there is really nothing you can do to convince someone one way or the other, unless they're open to the idea and willing to find out for themselves."
There are those, however, who demand scientific proof before they are willing to embrace the notion. And those skeptics say the evidence in support of dowsing is nonexistent.
The James Randi Educational Foundation in Florida offers $1 million to anyone who can demonstrate scientifically they have paranormal abilities. Dowsers can try for the prize, said James "the Amazing" Randi, a former magician turned debunker of all things unscientific.
"Of the hundreds of those we've tested over the past few years probably 85 percent were dowsers," Randi said, indicating that none could demonstrate results better than what could be produced through normal chance occurrences.
What the foundation's test found was that no two dowsers will ever pick the same spot and no dowser will pick the same spot twice if the terrain is altered and disguised.
"I don't doubt the sincerity of dowsers, but even after we've demonstrated that they can't produce results that are any better than chance they'll still go away believing in their abilities," Randi said. "It is like the mother whose son is caught shoplifting on tape. She wonders why someone would want to frame her child by producing a fake video."
The scientific explanation is that pendulums do swing and divining rods dip or converge but it is the dowser subconsciously doing it in what is known as an "ideomotor reaction," Randi added.
As for the success rates that dowsers claim, skeptics argue there is a ready explanation.
More than 90 percent of the Earth's surface has water within a drillable depth, said Cliff Treyens, spokesman for the National Ground Water Association in Westerville, Ohio. "That is why you can drill and find water in the middle of a desert."
In Utah most water-well drillers prefer to remain neutral on the issue of dowsing, Jessop said. "Drillers usually won't call a dowser in themselves, but if a customer mentions they would like their property dowsed, they're more than happy to oblige. If a well comes up dry, it takes the responsibly off their shoulders and puts it onto the dowser."
Driller Robert Armstrong said it is rare to sink a well and not come up with a least some usable water. "But is not always as much as you want or need," he said.
So he called in Jessop to survey the property above Weber Canyon and select the site best suited to drilling.
"The owner here has a lot of property, about 120 acres," said Armstrong as he walked down the hill after Jessop. "You can say what you want about dowsers but one thing I've noticed working with Shem [Jessop] is that he does have a talent for finding those spots where there is not only water, but plenty of it."