by Mike Otto
I’m not good at rain dances, but I’ve been known to give it a try.
Seeing a pond or lake lapping at its topmost edge is soothing. Showing up a few months later to see it five feet low and gasping for water is distressing.
What do we do when it will not rain or the perfect site does not have enough drainage to fill the pond more than once? I’ve seen this so many times in Texas it makes my brain spill over.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the stories. The land has been in the family for generations, a perfect home has been built and weekends are filled with loads of fun, but the water level is always low, thanks to that furnace we call summer and weirder-than-normal weather patterns.
Filling the pond with water from the sky is just not working. Yes, it rains. Of course, it does. The yearly average rainfall seems good, though the drainage area might be a little small for that site. Heavier rains that usually keep the pond full have turned into lighter soaking rains that keep the farmers happy and the yards green, but there is not enough runoff to fill the pond.
Whatever the reason, the pond water level is low and I’ve been asked to help. I’m not good at rain dances, but I’ve been known to give it a try. Beyond that, I must get creative to find a solution. Where to start? I always start by investigating what it will take to minimize leakage and maximize watershed.
Actually, this problem can be dealt with in several different ways. Adding water to the pond can be done in nearly all areas of the country, but it almost always costs money.
Several years ago, I was called in as a consultant to fix a problem for one of the good doctors in south Texas. Dr. Good was finally out of school, starting a good business with the help of his bride, their family planned, and the new office almost complete. Land has been found for the family to start building their home on ten acres overlooking a five-acre lake. The local realtor explained the hole for the lake had already been dug, and all he has to do is build a little dam and fill it with water.
Yes, there’s a hole. It was excavated to retrieve material for nearby construction projects.
What the good doctor did not know, and the seller likely did not know either, was the fact most good construction dirt is not good pond dirt.
Pond dirt needs clay and most select fill soils for building avoids clay. As soon as this was pointed out to our doctor buddy, he said “No worries” there is an irrigation ditch close by and he can buy all the water he needs. Problem solved…well, it was starting to be solved.
As a long time earthmover, I was still suspicious. I’ll always remember a lesson learned from a crusty old bulldozer operator. As a youngster in the business I asked him how good the dirt needed to be to hold water. He spit off to the right, shifted his chaw to the other side of his mouth and said, “Son, your dirt needs to hold water a little slower than the water running in it.” After decades of doing what I do, I now understand what he meant back in those golden days.
A local contractor was hired to do some shaping of the shoreline and create some nice scenic spots for the family to enjoy. Still, I wasn’t sure these folks truly understood what I was preaching.
Not only did it take a contractor and heavy equipment to get to this point, it took a lawyer to finish the construction. Getting permission to lay pipe from the canal to the pond was harder than anyone could imagine.
Fast-forward a few months. With necessary cosmetic work finished in the hole, the house built, and a water pipeline installed from the irrigation canal to the pond, the valve was opened.
The pond was filled within three weeks, and it was a work of art. The real challenge was paying the bill. Seems those suspect soils were pretty thirsty. Seems they seeped enough to push up the cost even with a successful medical practice footing the bill—his wallet was a little more porous than the soils under that lake. The yearly electric charge to keep the water level full added up. Eventually, we added a liner to help hold the amount of water that needed to be purchased to keep water in the pond. Now the yearly cost has almost been eliminated. With the turn of a valve, the water level can rise to the perfect elevation.
Similar story, second chapter. A family in central Kansas, planning their dream home looking over their dream lake—about 13 acres of pristine water. At the moment, waterfowl ponds sit beyond the dam site. There is a small pond sitting in the middle of the planned new construction, waiting to be inundated, but it does not stay full. Red flag. If the small pond loses water, the big pond will also lose water. With the house plans okayed, the rock road built, trees planted, fences in place, this piece of work is moving forward at a rapid pace.
Studying the site, the drainage is barely adequate, the soils poor, BUT the property has a well that produces 300 gallons per minute with the flip of a switch. The water is good and the well is not very deep. If the economics of running a well part-time offsets the cost of finding good clay and moving it in place, a decision could be near. However, the landowner must also take into consideration the aquifer below the surface. Will pumping water for a small lake be an issue? Due diligence is required, dear landowner, due diligence.
With homework done, plans for lake construction move forward. Some clay was brought in to seal spotty looking areas. Using the well to supplement the lake, a waterfall was designed from the well to cascade into the lake. Everything is beautiful. The finished home is a gorgeous place, with a large wrap around porch overlooking the pond. The boat dock is a work of art, shoreline manicured, migrating waterfowl more than you can count. The problem? Well, the little pond in the middle became a sore spot. Maybe that decision wasn’t thought out as deeply as it should have been. It was the source of a significant leak.
The first of every month the electric bill comes due and as we all know, that little fee always grows higher, never cheaper. The decision was made to drain the lake, seal the bottom, push some clay into the bottom of the small pond and try again. Job completed AGAIN. This time the monthly electric bill is much more manageable and the lake, along with the adjacent duck paddies are kept at the proper level all the time.
The third chapter of this water-woven tale is similar as the first two. Land in the family for generations, beautiful old home, trees that have been there from the beginning of time. This piece of land has a good site for a ten-acre lake. As a matter of fact, it should have had a lake built on it years ago. The problem is the amount of drainage, it will only fill up when one of the Gulf of Mexico hurricanes come to visit, and no one ever prays for that to happen, unless you live along the gulf coast. This pond is inland; maybe it could catch some water from a big storm.
Called in as a consultant to figure out why this beast of earthwork drains too fast, my first order of business is, “Can a water well be drilled?” If yes, “How much does it cost to drill and how many gallons of water per minute can be expected?” And of course, “What will it cost to run?” As with each situation, the main ingredient is how well does the site hold water?
At first glance, with a few spades of dirt turned to look below soils surface, it looked pretty good. But, as is often the case, the site had some problems. Seems there were some seams of porous sand with gravel that sent water packing to a nearby river. The lake was finished but the water level always quickly dropped after good, filling rains.
The contractor came back for a second time and did his best to seal those veins and cover them with good clay. With this latest phase of dirt work completed by the local earthmover, and the new well turned on for a while, everything seemed good. The lake was almost full, and then we found the well could not keep up. The decision was made to drain the lake again, look it over to see where the latest leak sits, do the necessary work to help it hold water better, and then turn the well back on. The local earthmover moved dirt a third time and then stopped returning phone calls. He’d had enough of this unpleasant lake site. This time the results were much better; not perfect, but acceptable.
It is always hard to overpower Mother Nature. The dirt needs to be the kind that holds water, and you have to have water. Sounds like common sense, but by nature, people often don’t have the ability to properly judge those two simple concepts, because they are focused on, “The land’s been in the family for generations” instead of “This is good land to build a pond.”
Here’s your bottom line: Both problems can be worked around, but you want to know as much as possible before you start. Evaporation will always be something to consider and no pond holds like a swimming pool, but if you are blessed with a well to keep your pond full by all means, get the necessary information and permits, and take advantage of it.
The items below must be considered.
What amount of water do you have access to? How much does it cost? Information that will help in the decision: An acre of water one-foot deep will have 325,853 gallons. A one-acre lake, averaging five-feet in depth, will have about five-acre-feet of water. Doing the math, we come up with 1,630,000 gallons. In the grand scheme of things that is not a lot of water, but coming out of the pipe it may be hard to get.
A well that produces 20 gallons a minute will give you 28,800 gallons a day. At that rate it will take 55 days to fill the one-acre pond. With no seepage but some evaporation, this sounds like it could work. With some help from some rain it could be acceptable, but just barely. All ponds will have some seepage so that makes it look even worse. Twenty gallons a minute could help keep one full if we could get it full to begin with, but that is about the best it will do.
Look at 50 gallons a minute. That would take 22 days. Still a long time, but it would be able to keep the pond full—if it did not seep too much.
The irrigation ditch in south Texas had 2,000 gallons per minute capacity. The Kansas Lake was 250 gallons per minute, and the well in that third example produces 900 gallons per minute.
Now, for the cost. An electric bill over $300.00 per month does not seem like a lot of money, until you multiply it by 12 months to see it comes to $3,600.00. In ten years, that will be $36,000.00. That is, if the cost of energy stays the same.
Doing a little work to ensure dirt holds water may be cheap in comparison to the monthly charge to get the water to the lake, especially over a long period of time.
With a weather pattern that will keep the lake full all the time, adding a little water to the lake is not much of a big deal. But when it gets dry and stays dry for months or even years, it makes good sense to look at ways to get more water.
Here’s probably the best advice as you do your homework. Always talk to a local water well man—he will know the laws and, more importantly, he will know what to expect below the ground. Some places have no underground water, and when they do it may not be fit to drink, though it might be able to be used for a lake, so don’t give up.
Water, water everywhere, it’s up to you to think.