Startup StrategyStartup Strategy
Pro tips on building a new pond
By Bob Lusk
Maybe you just purchased a tract of land. Or Aunt Jane, may she rest in peace, left you part of the old home place. Either way, you walk a hillside on the property and below, the land fairly begs for a pond. You walk along and, in a few minutes, the pond is beginning to take shape in your mind... The dam and spillway... The shape of the shoreline.
This is where most new impoundments get their start - in the fertile minds of landowners. Trouble is, there's a lot of legwork between those first thought bubbles and the day your new pond fills with water. And unless you're planning a simple, bowl-shaped livestock watering hole, the design of a pond can be more important, and just as tricky, as the actual construction phase.
So, with hopes of bringing the challenge into focus, we've asked some of the nation's leading pond professionals for tips on creating. To a man, they urged landowners to...
Start at the start
To breathe life into your vague vision of a waterbody, you need to know the utility for this pond-to-be. Will it be used to water cattle? For drinking water? Flood control?
Will the pond be used to generate income? To enhance property value?
Or, like many subscribers, do you strive to provide recreation for recreation's sake? Perhaps you have children, or your kids have youngsters of their own. Do you want them to catch big fish in a clean, healthy environment? If so, what species of fish typically flourish in your geographic area?
Your answers will go a long way in shaping the proposed pond project. "I'm getting more and more calls from people who want to build something, but they're not sure exactly what they want," said Mike Otto, a member of the Pond Boss Field Advisory Staff and a veteran dirt contractor who has built golf course water hazards in Florida and wastewater lagoons in Ohio.
"Years ago, most people just wanted me to push up a dam so they could collect water for livestock. It was small, simple stuff. Not any more."
There was a time, during the 1920s and '30s when farm ponds were used to produce protein for the table. Nowadays, as more ponds fulfill our needs for recreation and aesthetics, pond design has become more important than ever.
In fact, it's no longer enough to know whether you want to support livestock or wildlife. There are other issues to consider:
Will you live near the proposed pond site? If so, will the pond wrap around the home?
When completed, do you want the project to have a manicured shoreline, like a golf course? Or do you prefer a more natural pastoral setting?
What about waterfowl and other wildlife? Do you want to create habitat for ducks, geese, songbirds, deer and other species?
"There are a lot more options than anybody realizes," said Otto, who runs Otto's Dozer Service north of Dallas near the Oklahoma-Texas border.
"Dirt-working equipment and operators are a dime a dozen. The key is coming to grips with what you really, really want to accomplish, then doing your homework."
Part of this preparation is learning about costs. Moving a cubic yard of dirt costs $1, often more. That's a bedrock price that increases if the dirt must be handled, shaped or moved any distance. Specialized equipment, difficult working conditions and market demand drive up prices, too.
Thus, a basic three-quarter acre pond, with little engineering and shaped like a soup bowl or a loaf of bread, will cost $2,000-$3,000. A 10-acre lake, with spillway and flow-through pipe, may cost $100,000, while adding $150,000 to the value of the property.
Avoid sticker shock. Plan your project, going in, and stay within your budget.
The Right stuff
Thoughtful planning includes making use of what Mother Nature has provided. More to the point, the practical pondmeister takes the available land features and molds them into a site that will capture water.
"Obviously, it's not practical to put a pond on top of a hill," Otto said. "But you're way ahead of the game if you've got a creek that runs through the place. If you already have the low spots, you've got a prime location for a dam." Eyeball your proposed site. Can you envision a logical position for a dam? One subscriber in northwestern Louisiana had his dirt contractor tie two hills together with a dam no longer than 200 yards. Despite its modest size, the dam creates a gorgeous, three-toed lake covering six surface acres.
It should be noted that this site, located just outside Ruston, LA, receives plenty of runoff from an average annual rainfall of 45 inches. A similar site in, say, southern New Mexico, might receive only 6-8 inches of rain each year.
Soil materials go a long way in determining whether your dam or levee will hold water. You always hope for an abundance of clay on site. In many regions, the best clay looks almost blue-gray in color.
Take a handful of the soil and squeeze it in your palm. If it forms a ball, chances are, your soil has enough clay content to capture water. To be sure, have an engineering firm bore test holes where you plan your dam.
Send your soil to a test lab. This procedure may cost $750-$ 1,000 or more, but it will be money wisely spent.
If you don't have clay on the site, you have several options, and none of them are cheap. You may import raw clay from another site. Or buy sodium bentonite, a clay that swells on contact with water. Or you may install a liner.
Any of these alternatives must be applied properly. Material prices and application fees vary by delivery distance and volume.
Another consideration: It may cost several thousand dollars to apply bentonite, with no guarantee the pond will hold. A liner is more expensive yet, with professional applicators charging up to $1,000 a day, or more. But most liners come with a multi-year guarantee. Consult the source guide for options.
Match the size of your pond to the anticipated runoff. In Georgia, a 40-acre watershed will fill up a pond the size of the Atlantic. In southern Arizona, a 400-acre watershed, wouldn't keep a teacup full.
Rate of evaporation is a critical factor, too. It's not enough to know how much rain you will receive; how much will you lose to the thirsty sky?
Enter the U.S. Department of Agriculture with some general guidelines. In its handbook "Ponds - Planning, Design, Construction" (Agriculture Handbook No. 590). To ensure a permanent water supply, the Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends that most ponds in the eastern half of the U.S. be built at least 6-7 feet deep.
Those depth requirements change, however, as one moves west into more and climes. A pond near El Paso, TX for instance, should be 12-14 feet deep, minimum.
The difference in rainfall patterns not only determines the size, design and location of a pond, but the very practicality of the project. In drought-prone Central Texas, for instance, landowners first look for a spring or seasonal creek. Failing that, they often supplement the runoff with a well.
Staying within the law
But even this safety valve may not be the logical fallback position it appears. Why? Many states are becoming ever-more restrictive on who can collect how much water, and where.
Last summer, for instance, a San Antonio, TX man started building a lake on land he bought north of the city. The lake was designed to catch runoff from a 200-acre watershed. During dry spells, the lake would be supplemented by ground water, pumped to the surface and piped about 100 yards into the main lake basin.
About this time, unbeknownst to local residents, a new ground water district sprang up. The new agency, created only months before by the state legislature, established a new set of regulations and began to deny drilling permits. The district, in a dispute with the well driller over paperwork, continues to withhold the landowner's application.
The landowner has explained to water district members that the proposed lake is for noncommercial livestock and recreation use, that it lies wholly within his property, outside the flood plain. The district, which cashed the man's check, has steadfastly balked, saying it will not issue the well permit without a site evaluation by an approved inspector. The inspector is, of course, backed up with work, causing further delays.
As a result, the Comal County "lake," which could have been supporting a new crop of fingerlings (bluegill and redear sunfish), along with fathead minnows, remains a glorified mud hole. All plans are on hold pending receipt of the permit.
The message: Know before you go. This ain't the old days. None of us are as free as we once were.
Seek professional advice. Visit your nearest NRCS office. Check with the Pond Boss Source Guide.
And be mindful that successfully impounding surface water - even for noncommercial livestock and recreational use - requires advance planning, maybe even government clearance.
Once you're confident you know where you're building your pond, and why, it's time to call your dirt man.
Reprinted with permission from Pond Boss Magazine
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