Several UK water companies still have engineers who use dowsing rods to find pipes, an investigation by one scientist has found. Dowsing is an unscientific method of finding water underground by watching how two rods move in one's hands.
Sally Le Page, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University and science communicator wrote on Medium that she started questioning British water companies about the practice after a man from Severn Trent Water "slowly walking around holding two 'bent tent pegs' to locate the pipe".
When Le Page asked the company why they were using a practice that has "zero evidence" backing it, she got this response on Twitter: "We've found that some of the older methods are just as effective than the new ones, but we do use drones as well, and now satellites.
"The older methods are tried and tested and we do find them useful - as I say, we are venturing out into other methods."
Le Page said she challenged them and got this further response: "We do have some techs that still have them in the van and use them if they need to, however we prefer to use listening sticks and other methods."
Another user then took the initiative to ask Yorkshire Water their opinion and was surprised to be told: "although few and far between, some of our techs still use them! But they are only used to detect pipework and voids that may be caused by bursts or collapses!"
"You could just laugh this off. Isn't it a bit silly that big companies are still using magic to do their jobs! " Le Page wrote. "Except if they get it wrong, that could mean the difference between an entire town having safe drinking water or not."
She then went on to contact ten further water companies around the UK on Twitter, eight more said that their technicians sometimes use dowsing rods. Only two out of twelve major water companies confirmed to Le Page that that do not use divination when finding water: Northern Ireland Water and Wessex Water.
Later on, Le Page posted an update with an extra response from Severn Trent Water saying that they do not promote the use of dowsing rods but they would not go so far as to condemn the practice. Anglican Water also responded, though seemingly doubling down in a manner that might surprise some.
Replying on Twitter the company said: "We're not sure a tweet to a customer care agent is really the basis for a scientific survey. Please don't misrepresent the huge amount of resources, effort and technology that the water industry puts into finding leaks."
When Le Page replied that was not an "effective technology", the company retorted: "If you've ever tried to find a water pipe underground then you'll know that it can be very difficult you will try anything."