Oh water, where art thou?

The quartz crystal quivers, then leans ever so slightly, with no apparent sleight- of-hand direction from Dave Penney.

Slowly, the pointed end of the crystal zeroes in on a blue pen mark scribed on a map.

Penney is a picture of concentration, his hands clasped around a cord attached to the crystal. "It's moving on that one," says the 70-year-old retired motoring and ground engineer, under his breath. "See Johns Road? That aquifer is coming from a main artery here. What I have found with divining is the water is coming from the Antarctic, sourcing through the southern lakes."

Penney is a water diviner, but not for him the conventional forked willow or the two L-shaped metal rods. The divining rods are only used as a back-up. The rest of the time, he lets the crystal run its course over maps, plotting the direction of aquifer arteries and their sub-branches.

A box-load of maps lie on a table. On each one, handwritten dashed lines – often hundreds of them – indicate the pathway of aquifers deep underground.

This method and some of his explanations will test a healthy cynic. More hardened headshakers will probably scorn the notion that a rock placed over a map can track water.

But Penney has his followers, and by all accounts the track record, to counter this. Several dozen successful wells on farmland later, he has also put his money where his crystal rock gazes.

He approached the Banks Peninsula District Council four years ago after learning about its difficulties in finding water for the peninsula's main township, Akaroa, and offered to sort out their dilemma. He told them he could find aquifer water.

The district council, after spending a large amount – $1.62m according to Penney – in its own fruitless water search, was unwilling to commit more money.

So Penney fronted up with his own – $80,000 for the drilling of each well – after map divining the peninsula. The geologists told him he would never do it because any peninsula water was from the local catchment.

Penney says he knew that water could be found for Akaroa from aquifer flows which come from the Canterbury Plains and through the peninsula. "I proved the experts wrong."

Christchurch mayor Bob Parker, who used to wear the mayoral chains for the peninsula, confirms that a contract was signed with Penney and a reasonable water flow was found in a well successfully dug at L'Aube Hill at the rear of the township. The flow rate for another well is waiting confirmation.

"We were sceptical, and concerned that we weren't going to put ratepayers money in, but he was very persistent and said he would pay for it. We didn't want to be seen as exploiting him so we went to his solicitor and got a contract. He could divine and we would put a royalty in place if he struck water and effectively cover his costs, and if he got good water he would take a small income."

Finding a water source only a few metres wide and about 100m deep was not easy.

Parker says he hasn't seen any evidence that the water comes from aquifers, and more conventional thinking is that the peninsula-collected water is from trapped reservoirs.

Penney says he financed the project himself because he had confidence in his water-finding abilities.

"It was a big risk, but I had to prove what I did. I am 100 per cent successful and haven't had a failure yet. You cannot afford a failure when people pay $21,000 to $30,000 for a well. They expect results."

During the map divining, Penney detected hot water at three peninsula sites – one at sea level, which has the potential to be developed into thermal pools and a tourist attraction.

Smoke and mirrors? A fluke? Mumbo jumbo?

Who knows? The stretching- the-credibility crystals haven't, however, prevented farmers from hiring the water diviner.

Leading up to the Akaroa watershed, Penney had already found water for farmers in Omihi, Culverden, Waikari and Ashley.

Saltwater Creek cropping farmer Ian Batchelor employed the diviner to find a well for house and irrigation water, and it gushed out like a fountain from the site he chose. The well hit a seam of two aquifers meeting together about 20m underground.

Bachelor says he is an "80% believer" in divining, acknowledging that Saltwater Creek is within an artesian area.

"If you are going to make a decision (to dig a well) that costs a lot of money, you want a better ratio than poking a pipe in the ground. If you have a choice, why not believe in these people?"

He wonders why taxpayer money is being spent on a multi-million-dollar scheme to bring water from Kaiapoi to Rangiora when Penney could help.

Penney was eight years old when he first learned he could divine for water.

During school holidays, an old Scottish miner on the West Coast taught him to use a crystal pendulum.

"It used to rain cats and dogs so for something to do I would help (the Scotsman) repair the miner's pocket watches, and when that was done he tried me out divining, but I never used it until I came here and stepped into an environmentally polluted area."

Penney moved to a 12-hectare lifestyle block at Ashley in 1993, where he and his wife raise ostriches and cattle. Noticing that 30-year-old shelter-belt trees were mysteriously dying and suspecting it was related to aquifer water quality, he began to divine for water in the farm paddocks, using rods to locate aquifers and crystals to determine water quality. On further investigation, he believed the contaminated water came from an aquifer traced to a nearby industrial plant. Despite his objections, an extension to a consent for discharging chemical and human waste was granted. The trees are still dying.

Initially he did all his divining on foot. Then one day he was plotting an aquifer position on a map and found the crystal's divining abilities worked, even though he was many kilometres away.

After reading a book about a divining Englishwoman, he found that by holding different- coloured scraps of silk, he could tell whether the water was good or bad. Royal-blue silk detects bad water, light-blue reasonable water quality and violet perfect water. In a demonstration he shows how this works.

"See how I am holding the cord freely and letting the crystal dangle? And when I pick up an aquifer on the map, if the water is polluted the royal-blue silk will show me it is polluted. That is a polluted area, and that goes right up to the contaminated band of water."

The area he points to ranges from northern Christchurch to the Ashley river. Some of this contamination, which is being spread by aquifers, he has now traced to an old timber yard on the old Main North Road near the Waimakariri Bridge.

The aquifers, he says, branch and join to create larger flows.

After years of map plotting, Penney is convinced that the main arterial aquifers come from Antarctica and supply water to the southern lakes, through the West Coast to Motueka and through the Marlborough Sounds and across Cook Strait to eventually source water to Lake Taupo.

Two of them are thought by him to circulate from the upper South Island and move down the east coast to split into four aquifers at Seddon, with some forking underneath the Waimakariri, before moving further upriver to Lake Sumner and Lake Coleridge.

During the drilling of the Akaroa wells, he claims to have known the distance left to reach the aquifer by crystal divining at his Ashley home. He maintains he has divined medical documents to learn that a friend had reduced circulation in his arteries.

There are limitations to map divining, says water diviner Dave Penney. Salt water and ice somehow prevents the detection of water. However, Penney claims that simply by divining maps he can trace aquifer water in other countries. The biggest of three crystals – imported clear quartz – are used for this work.

Penney understands that not everyone will accept his theories. "If you disbelieve me and say `what a load of bunkum', I can take you to where the aquifer crosses a road. The margin of error is only two metres, but I can show you with the rods that the water is there."

The co-chairman of New Zealand Skeptics, Vicki Hyde, says people are right to be sceptical about "dowsers" and particularly about something as important as water.

"There are people who make claims of finding water, oil or gold and none have been able to demonstrate it in a controlled situation. The claims are great, the actual evidence is non-existent. It's marketing," she says.

She says divining-rod and crystal movement can be explained by a physiological reaction called the ideometer effect. "You may not be aware of it, but your mind can tell your body to do something without you even noticing.

"Involuntary motor movements can cause divining rods to move apparently of their own volition, without the person who is touching it realising they are guiding it."

The term was coined in the late 1800s after people started to seriously study what was happening with talking/Ouija boards, pendulums, water divining, table tipping and other paranormal phenomena popular at the time.

Hyde says the effect can be strong under conditions where movement is expected or encouraged, such as when divining rods start whirling while a diviner is looking for water. She points to an Australian study in 1980 which challenged diviners to find water. Most were unsuccessful.

Hyde says most water diviners are not scam artists, and sincerely believe they have water-divining abilities, but are unaware of the alternative scientific explanation.

Penney says divining rods work because some people attract more static electricity in their body than others.

While Penney's divining-rod theories are plausible, his aquifer- source theories and explanation for the water-finding power of the crystal stretch the imagination. He says the power of the crystal can be traced to the Kennelly-Heaviside Layer, a cloak of ions surrounding the Earth. "People have a lot of theories on divining, but I believe the divining comes from information from the ionosphere. I believe that information is very similar to a computer where you are tapping into the expertise of people that have been and gone."

Doesn't he realise that he is approaching crackpot territory here?

"They will probably say I am cracked, but the information is coming from a source other than myself. I could not get it alone."

Penney says people may choose to doubt the validity of divining, but they cannot doubt the evidence. He only wants to help people find water.

"I think people are sceptical and a lot of the resistance comes from the geologists, but surprisingly enough a lot of overseas geologists belong to divining groups.

"Divining mightn't work for everybody, but there are people that have the ability and some of the things I have done have even surprised myself."

Does Bob Parker, who as a public figure probably wouldn't want to be seen to side with the supernatural, believe in Penney's divining abilities?

"Was I convinced he had extraordinary powers? I am still sceptical, but I would have to say he got some results."

The Press