Build Your Dream Pond

Most landowners would love to have their own pond, but government regulations have created enough hurdles that many don’t bother. Here’s how to get it built.

Greg Grimes | March 2, 2017

So you think it’s time to build the pond or lake of your dreams, but you don’t know where you need to start? This article and another next month will provide you a solid plan of action. These articles are not written to answer all pond construction questions, but rather to act as a great primer to get you started.

I’ve been in the pond management business for more than 20 years, and we are just now brave enough to tackle this complicated topic in magazine articles, and GON is the place to do it.

Site Selection

The most important first step is site selection. In 2015, we were flown to speak at an Arizona real estate conference. The title of our presenation was “Is the pond site an economical pond site?”

When looking for land, right at the top of many real estate listings is “pond site.” However, just because it may have what a real estate agent considers a pond site doesn’t mean it is a site that is a wise choice for building a pond.

Our company performs the first steps of this “due diligence” process for clients considering buying land or when they begin the pond decision process on their land.

Despite government regulations that have created hurdles for landowners who would like to build a pond on their property, you can still build your own dream pond if you take the steps, including due diligence in site identification and getting the proper permitting from agencies.

It’s unfortunate that about half of the sites we look at are not truly economical for the construction of a lake or pond. There are several key factors that we look for when selecting a good pond site. Here are a few things to look for:

No. 1: What is the size of the watershed?

This means, how many acres of land is draining into the point where you want to build the dam? In other words, do you have too much water or not enough water to accomplish the pond size you desire? We used to say you need a 10:1 ratio, but now with these frequent droughts we like a minimum of 15 acres runoff to every surface acre. On the flip side, and really a more common issue with site selection, is excess water. Once you get more than a 50:1 ratio, you will have to construct a larger pipe system or a higher dam to handle flooding. The high water flow also leads to more potential for sedimentation and too much water to allow for a good fertilization bloom. Just this week I visited a site with more than 800 acres of watershed, and they were interested in a 3-acre pond. That, my friends, is not feasible in my book.

No. 2: Does the site have adequate amounts of compactible soil at the lake site and near the proposed dam location?

If not, the site may not hold water or will be too pricey to construct. Too much rock or sand, and it will be near impossible to seal the dam. A starting point here are soil maps that are used to locate some type of clay at or near the pond site. If there is no clay nearby, the cost of trucking in proper compactible soil will increase the construction cost dramatically. Pending the soil map information, soil test pits along the center line of the dam and borrow area are critical to a successful design and construction cost estimate.

Unfortunately I have seen too many examples of ponds being built that just don’t hold water. It is best to get this figured out on the front end to save you the frustration down the road.

No. 3: Is there a good dam location?

This means are there two high points (ridges) coming together lessening the length and height; thus the amount of dirt to build a proper dam to impound water. Some smaller ponds are excavated; however, the best means is impounding the water by constructing the dam between two ridges and backing water up. If the area has a location where you can bridge the gap with a short dam, the overall construction cost will be less.

No. 4: Does the topography and terrain produce a sizeable lake upstream? 

If the topography is falling rapidly downhill, you cannot build up much water with the construction of the dam. If side hills are steep near the dam, you again will gain little water for the money spent on dam construction. It boils down to how many acres of pond will you get out of this dam?

Sure, you can dig areas deeper, but this can get pricey in a hurry. The textbook site is gently sloping and widens out as you go up grade. Also ideal is if within the impounded area dirt is good clay for compaction that you can use for the dam while increasing or deepening the pond.

Once you determine that you have a good pond site, you need to figure out if the planned pond location and size and budget meet your goals. This is accomplished on a second site visit where the waterline is shot or shown with contour line drawings. Cost estimates are provided based on a basic plan. If that gives the project a green light, then it’s time to think about getting the pond permitted.

A path toward successful permitting of a new pond construction is getting an agricultural exemption. You’ll have to plan for fields or pasture near the pond that can be irrigated.

Pond Permitting

Permitting a pond in Georgia or Alabama is not an easy process. It can be quite difficult to understand all the steps needed to qualify for the construction of the pond. I will dumb it down to get the ball rolling.

I spoke to Brian Kimsey a Professional Engineer with Carter Engineering Consultants Inc. about permitting ponds.

“Permitting a pond is like having your mother-in-law come for a visit,” Brian said. “You don’t really want to do it, but it is required. Permitting is a necessary task that you are required to do, but in the long-run it will be beneficial.

“Many clients will roll the dice and not permit their ponds. With all the environmental ‘watch-dogs’ out there now, any time you are working in or around water, following the letter of the law is much cheaper than paying the fines if caught. We encourage our clients to allow the consultants that are experts in the field to navigate through the permitting process for them.”

All ponds impacting streams or wetlands require a permit. The size of the pond’s disturbance will dictate which permit you are required to obtain. A pond will require permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state environmental agency and the local issuing authority. In many cases, the pond may qualify for an exemption of one or all the governmental agencies. If the pond does not qualify for an exemption, the landowner is required to mitigate for any stream or wetland they are “destroying.” Might sound harsh, but basically the pond takes the place of a stream or wetland, so you will need to buy credits from an established mitigation bank to replace what is damaged by the pond. Simply put, this process for approval is tedious and will cost money and time.

When selecting a location for a new pond, a key question is whether you have a good spot for the dam. Two ridges coming together lessen the length and height for a dam, which means less dirt needed to build a proper dam to hold back the water.

The best means for constructing a pond is through the Corps of Engineers agricultural-exemption program. The Corps of Engineers administers the permit process, and USDA-NRCS provides agricultural expertise. The Corps of Engineers and USDA-NRCS follow an agency agreement to review and approve agricultural-exempt ponds. Here you are getting the permit based on your agricultural needs for irrigation. This water justification can be for livestock grazing or crops. There is a detailed formula we won’t go into, but you are allowed to store a volume of water based on how many acres of crops you need to irrigate. We get our engineers involved in the NRCS paperwork. Once NRCS concurs with the water budget, then calculations are submitted along with NRCS paperwork to the regional Corps of Engineers office. The process may take a while, but when done correctly, it will be approved.

What does all this mean? It means you have to set aside the amount of irrigated land and purchase pumps to accomplish this required irrigation. This also means that if you don’t have open land, you will have to clear timber land to create fields. You will need to clear stumps to set up this cleared land as pasture or cropland for irrigation.

For larger lakes it is slightly different paperwork, but the same basic process. The deeper and larger the lake, the more land you need to irrigate. As an example, if you have a 5-acre pond site that is approximately 25 deep at the dam, you would need approximately 26 acres of irrigated crops. This is where a good engineer with experience can get creative with double crops and other ways to lessen the burden of irrigation requirements. The crop type must be approved by USDA-NRCS, but it typically is primarily hay land or row crops.

A key question is whether your pond site has soil with good clay composition. If not, soil will have to be brought in for dam construction, increasing your costs.

A question that always comes up is, what method of irrigation do we use? The short answer is that water from the pond must be dispersed onto the crop using some method. There is no required method. The irrigation is typically accomplished by pumping water from the lake via a pipeline to the field. Then the water is spread by using some form of sprinkler irrigation.

The site selection and permitting are the biggest hurdles.

Next month, we will get into some fun stuff—details of designing and  constructing your pond. This will include basics on dam construction and outlet systems, as well as how to design the pond to grow fish both for the wall and for the hot grease.

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