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Can’t find groundwater? Some swear by water witches

George Dellaganna watches his two metal wands crisscross as he locates an underground stream on a North County Ranch.
George Dellaganna watches his two metal wands crisscross as he locates an underground stream on a North County Ranch.

Science can’t explain everything, and some areas of the map are blank. So humans try to fill the empty space.

San Luis Obispo County is currently wrestling with groundwater management planning.

When the well is dry, people want answers.

A well driller is hired to punch a hole wherever a client points and drill for as long as the dollars hold out.

Drillers can’t assure that water will be found in the unseeable underground. That’s when the water witch’s phone rings.

Dan Parker wrote this for the Telegram-Tribune on Aug. 28, 1989:

Dowser does big business: Science scoffs, but local ranchers swear by water witch

George Dellaganna is a 79-year-old Paso Robles rancher who searches for underground water by waving two small metal sticks around.

And four North County well-drilling firms keep his phone number handy.

Dellaganna is a water dowser. A water witch. A man, who, according to many, can feel unseen water pull at him through any piece of scrap metal he might hold in his hands.

Well-drilling firms generally don’t call Dellaganna until their customers ask for a water dowser. But when that request comes — and it has hundreds of times over the past 30 years — Dellaganna is the preferred “subcontractor.”

“He’s got an ability that’s beyond the scientific method of finding water,” said Rex Awalt, owner of Awalt and Son Aqua Engineering, a San Miguel well-drilling firm that calls out Dellaganna from time to time.

“I’ve seen him go into areas where you’d never expect to find water, and he’s found it,” Awalt said. “I’m impressed by him.”

“Some say it’s electricity, some say it’s magnetic,” Dellaganna said. “I just don’t know.”

Dellaganna was born Jan. 14, 1910, in Cayucos. He has worked as a rancher in the North County all his life except for nine years he spent in the Army during the 1940s and 1950s.

Dellaganna unsuccessfully tried water dowsing a few times before it started working for him one day about 30 years ago.

That day, Dellaganna dropped by a feed store in Atascadero and saw a friend toying with a dowsing rod.

“He said, ‘George, you ought to try this,’” Dellaganna recalled.

“I said, ‘No, they don’t work for me,’ but he said, ‘Go ahead,’ and so I did.’ 

And this time, he felt the pull of water.

“It was strange as the devil. I felt it real strong.”

Dellaganna began dowsing regularly, just for fun. But it wasn’t long before he started charging for his service.

“I couldn’t afford to run all over the county and run my ranches too.”

These days, he charges $50 for the first hour and $25 for each additional hour. Jobs take him from 20 minutes to seven hours.

Dellaganna said he has found water for more than 5,000 wells from Florida to Hawaii, most of them in San Luis Obispo County.

His success rate, he said, is 95 to 98 percent.

“It would be more than that if the drillers do what I tell them to do,” such as bailing mud from the holes they drill, he said.

Dellaganna owns three dowsing rods, he made them 30 years ago.

One is a 3-foot section of pencil-thick wire that Dellaganna twisted into a “V” shape, with looped handles. It was originally a power pole guy wire.

Dellaganna uses the other two dowsing rods in unison. These are twin 30-inch-long welding rods. He didn’t change their shape. They are perfectly straight except for a 90 degree bend at the very end of each rod.

“As soon as I start concentrating they’ll start moving,” Dellaganna said recently while giving a dowsing demonstration on his ranch five miles west of Paso Robles.

Dellaganna was using the two straight dowsing rods. He held them at waist level, one in each hand, like a gunfighter.

He slowly walked about 8 feet and then the rods swung toward each other and crossed. Dellaganna stopped.

“This is the center of the stream,” he said, digging his heel into the dirt.

Then Dellaganna decided to see how far underground the water was. He stood still and continued to hold the rods at waist level. For the nest few minutes the rods mainly stayed still but swung toward each other and crossed about eight times.

Delaganna explained that he was mentally guessing at how far down the stream was, and the rods were telling him whether he was guessing right or not. The rods said “yes” by crossing each other, they said “no” by staying still.

“Sounds silly as hell,” Dellaganna said, “but it works.”

People who use more scientific methods of finding water are careful to neither endorse nor completely condemn dowsing.

“I don’t have any confidence in the method,” said Timothy S. Cleath, a certified engineering geologist who subcontracts with San Luis Obispo city government to find the city new water sources.

“I do not espouse or recommend it to anybody,” Cleath said. But “that’s not to say that the (dowsing rod) doesn’t move. I recognize it moves. I recognize there may be some physical cause for (the rods) to do what they do.

“The problem I have,” Cleath said, “is (dowsers) don’t know how to interpret it … if there is a right way.”

Paul Wiley, owner of Templeton’s H&W Horizontal Well Drilling, said Dellaganna is successful on only about 50 percent of his dowsing efforts.

But Doug Filliponi co-owner of Filliponi and Thompson Drilling Co. of Atascadero said Dellaganna’s success rate is more like about 80 percent.

Filliponi said he often calls on Dellaganna when the firm’s customers request a dowser. He said he figures he has gone to Dellaganna about 100 times.

Russell Kirkland was foreman of the Jackson and Reinert Ranch near Paso Robles when he saw Dellagana seek out well water on the ranch 15 years ago.

Despite repeated well-drilling efforts, Kirkland said, ranch workers couldn’t find water — until they found Dellaganna, who happened to be driving a tractor on the ranch.

Dellaganna fashioned a dowsing rod out of an old coat hanger, took a walk around the ranch and picked out a spot. The chosen spot was less than 100 yards from one of the dry wells, Kirkland said, but they drilled Dellagana’s spot anyway — and found lots of water.

That experience made Kirkland a believer.

“You can see the dowsing rod pulling on his hands,” Kirkland said. “A lot of people wouldn’t believe this, but I know it to be a fact.”

Prefumo Canyon dowser John Silveira, 77, agreed it’s hard for the average person to believe that water witching works.

“There’re a lot of things that are hard to believe — unless you do it yourself,” said Silveira, who has been dowsing for 55 years.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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