Spencer Powell, 59, drills for water in Abilene, Texas. (Molly Hennessy-Fiske,…)
Spencer Powell and his drilling crew assembled behind the Living Word Harvester Church at a spot where, according to Powell's ancient craft, they would find water.
Powell, 59, learned to dowse for water more than 40 years ago from an old "water witcher" known simply as Mr. Ray. Now Powell runs a dowsing and drilling business, Diversified Water Well Drilling, and carries a notebook filled with the lengthening list of those seeking his services. Demand has skyrocketed in recent months here, about 180 miles west of Dallas, and statewide, fueled by the ongoing drought, heat wave and a boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a type of oil drilling that requires lots of water.
To find the best place to drill behind the church, Powell stopped by a few weeks earlier and grabbed two L-shaped divining rods he keeps stowed in the back of his 1950s drill rig. Slowly, gripping the short ends of the rods, he walked through the grass near a few mesquite trees until he felt the rods move. Then they crossed, signaling a potential water source.
Then he recited a short prayer.
Powell has encountered plenty of skeptics. Abilene, a city of about 120,000, is known for its conservative churches and Bible Belt politics. Powell assures doubters that water witching has nothing to do with witchcraft; it's a skill that can be learned, though some people are born with the gift.
These days, people are less likely to ask questions, including the folks at Living Word, desperate as they are for water. Powell receives several calls a day, mostly from residents whose wells have run dry.
The drought has taken a toll on Abilene, withering everything from the lawn at the town's chief tourist attraction, Frontier Texas!, to nearby Dyess Air Force Base. On the day Powell prepared to drill by the church, city officials were scheduled to meet to discuss whether to restrict outdoor watering to once a week because the level at Lake Fort Phantom Hill had dropped to 10 feet below the spillway. Residents had already been restricted to watering no more than twice a week.
Powell drills at least one well a day, mostly in rural yards, on farms and ranches. He charges $25 a foot for drilling a completed well, $10 a foot if the well turns out to be dry. He says he finds water about half of the time.
About 40 feet into the sticky red clay behind Living Word, he found it — although he wasn't sure whether it was of sufficient quality and quantity to make a decent well.
He sent his brother, Kyle Caswell, 52, to find a hose while he and another worker began digging two pits near the drill. They would shoot water into the drill hole, softening the dirt as they drilled deeper. The overflow would gush into the pits.
A man from the church pulled up. He climbed down from his truck in black cowboy boots, surveyed the drill and asked about their progress.
Powell explained that they were about to reach the red bedrock, or "red bed." Caswell arrived with a hose from the church building and started to sprinkle the dirt under the drill.
"It takes water to get water, don't it?" the man said before he drove off.
Powell was nervous. It's one thing to hit water, another to make a working well. He had sunk a well recently on nearby Anson Road, but the flow wasn't very strong. On this morning, the temperature was climbing into the 80s. He had sweated through the rim of his cap and the back of his shirt.
At about 11 a.m., he hit the red bedrock, which shaded shading the pools of water a darker brown. The drill continued to churn, humming as dragonflies hovered over the pits of muddy overflow. About an hour later, they removed the drill and inserted a PVC pipe into the hole. Muddy water gushed through.
"It makes you feel good when you make somebody water," he said. "That's pretty much all well water. It will be more than enough to keep this tank full — probably 30, 40 gallons a minute."
Powell and his crew shored up the new well with gravel and cement. By day's end, the mayor had announced new watering restrictions, and Powell had moved on to the next water request on his growing list.