Grading and Excavation Contractor Editor's Blog
Tuesday, July 05, 2011 6:48 PM
Tools for the Rest of Us
Some years ago I found a wonderful piece of property near the town of Weed, CA, and following the dictates of my heart rather than my head, I went ahead and bought it with no certainty as to my ability to develop a secure source of water without drilling clear to China. After receiving the assurance of the two top engineering firms in the area that China might indeed be my best bet, I decided to suspend my natural skepticism toward what I assumed to be the world of the occult, and went to see a water witch of good renown throughout the region, known simply as “Old George.” After explaining his preference for the term “hydrogeologist,” George led off on a high-speed reconnaissance lap of the property, pausing just occasionally to kick some dirt, sniff the air, and listen to the wind. Then he'd be off again, intuitively coming to but never crossing the unmarked boundaries of the 640-ac section in what was for the most part lightly wooded rangeland.
At last he made his way to the top of a massive rock outcropping that commanded a view of the entire Siskiyou Valley and its magnificent Mount Shasta at the southern reach, where, seating himself comfortably, he pulled out a frayed notebook filled with strange squiggles and marks and proceeded to leaf through several pages with an occasional nod accompanied by the word, “Yup.” Finally, after gazing out over the valley for a period of about five minutes, he rose and walked straight to one of the spots he had kicked half an hour earlier, where he stood for a minute more before pronouncing without fanfare, “Here.”
A week later, he led Stu Donaldson's drill rig to the spot, mentioned something about 60 feet and left. Two days more and Stu called to say that Old George was slipping. He’d had to go all the way to 68 feet to find water. “’Tain’t no gusher,” he admitted, “but it’s sweet as clover,” and “enough for household needs and a few head of cattle.”
Pleased as I was for the water, on the whole I was disturbed by the episode, since George’s performance went counter to my beliefs about witchcraft. It wasn’t until months later that my concerns were laid to rest, when Stu explained how George was well and away the most experienced hydrogeologist in the region, who in his younger days had developed much of the data for the US Geological Survey’s maps of the Shasta Valley by drilling, blasting, and making soundings in order to chart the complex geology of the area. “He knew where to find water on your property long before you hired him,” the drill operator chuckled at the vision of my being hoodwinked by the air-sniffing act. “Beneath all the rustic disguise, Old George is a real professional who makes use of the best tools available.”
Nearly a year later I ran George to ground at what I prefer to call the Longest Bar in Montague (CA), plying him with several shots of his favorite whisky before confronting him with my familiarity with his deception.
“Some people love to believe in witchcraft,” he offered with a grin. “Keeps ’em from facing the fact that there’s no substitute for hard facts and knowledge. In my business, without accurate maps, you’ve got nothing.” Two more visits of the Famous Grouse and he began telling me of how his father, a mining engineer, taught him to survey in the mountains using a compass, transit, plumb bob, and chain. Sometimes it would take a week of brushing and scrambling around just to shoot lines and find the boundaries of a property the size of mine. “Nowadays  a person with a laser rangefinder, compass, and an engineering calculator can do that in a day.” After a pause to toss back another drink, he went on to explain what the future held in store.
“One day soon, this will all be done using satellite-based position-finding gear in conjunction with an array of subsurface monitors. All the x, y, and z coordinates will be fed into a computer, and it will come up with maps you won't believe.” For a while we both sat in silence, each trying to envision what magic lay behind such promise. “Oh, Lord,” he whispered fervently, “I’d give anything to be around to see where that leads.”
“So would I,” I thought.
A quarter of a century later, what had seemed so impossibly advanced is now almost quaint. GPS, GIS, sensors covering every spectrum imaginable are employed to reveal Earth’s most carefully guarded secrets. Sad to say, Old George never got to see the realization of his vision—he died in 1974 after a brief illness—but all it would have done would be to have fired his imagination to project the next leap…and then the next.