Dick Torpey squints at the hot summer sky and slowly walks across a parking lot with two thin, yard-long rods held lightly in front of him. After a few steps, the rods swing together and cross, pointing at Torpey's chest. He is standing over a buried water pipe.
Torpey is a utility worker for the City of Milwaukie in Clackamas County. And he is using a method of underground water detection known as dowsing or water witching, the paranormal practice of holding two rods and walking until they supposedly sense water and turn parallel to the hidden pipe. That may conjure images of medieval farmers and modern nutcases. But water workers in Milwaukie, Lake Oswego and Tigard swear by it, saying some types of pipes can't be found any other way.
They must locate city water lines before a contractor moves lots of earth—say, to install a new phone line. Sewer, storm, gas, electric and phone lines must also be located before the dig.
Torpey, a 19-year city worker, says most water pipes, which typically lie under three feet of soil, are found with electronic locators that detect metal. But a few pipes are plastic, and if they don't have a wire running along them, Torpey resorts to his pair of refashioned metal clothes hangers to find the water lines.
The story is similar in Lake Oswego and Tigard, say water officials in those two cities.
Don't look for Portland water workers to be dowsing. Water Bureau spokeswoman Tricia Knoll says the city doesn't do it. "Our folks are really well-trained," she says, adding, "We have maps that show where all the mains are."
Officials in cities using water witching say they have maps but that water locating is a good backup because maps arent always up to date.
Most scientists scoff at water witching, which has never been proven to work. "It's scientific opinion that it's...bogus," says Prof. Erik Bodegom, who chairs Portland State University's physics department.
Mike Doney, an 82-year-old Milwaukie dowsing enthusiast and member of the Oregon Territory chapter of the American Society of Dowsers, counters that water witching will someday be proven, "if we ever learn to understand consciousness."
Yet even Torpey admits water witching can be risky. "Because of legalities and liabilities, we try to use electronic devices," Torpey says. "And we don't really do much witching unless there's no other way."