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Thinking of building a pond? Start here!

Ponds can be an excellent place for producing many fond memories for families and friends. I grew up with a two-and-a-half-acre pond right outside my front door. I spent countless evenings fishing, feeding large catfish, looking for snakes, or just sitting on the bank listening to what nature had to offer. On occasion, it would even freeze hard enough to sled on it in the winter. It was a place of solitude where my childhood "struggles" could be leveled out. It was a place that I called mine, and one day, Lord willing, my children will as well.

If you are in the early stages, such as thinking about a location or budget for your pond, I suggest getting a pond builder involved early. Ponds can't be built just anywhere; soil profiles, available water runoff, and other factors must be correct to ensure a quality, healthy pond. A reputable pond builder will be able to help assess your property and determine the best location. An ethical builder should give honest feedback and might even suggest against building a pond if the ingredients aren't right.

If a property owner calls me, I typically ask what the goals of the pond are and the ideal size and get a general idea of the location using a satellite image. I've learned to discuss money during this call. I give a range of what a pond of their description costs typically. I do this, so the customer understands the cost early on. If my cost is significantly more than expected, I leave it to the customer for the next step. Even if their budget doesn't match up, I'll still come out for a site visit if they want me to. I can discuss options and give advice, but I won't knock my estimate down to meet a budget. A pond is not something you can cut corners on, and the lowest price might cost you a lot more in the long run.

Using the satellite image, topographic overlay, and NRCS resources, I can get a general idea of the area and its suitability for a pond before coming out for a site visit. Once on-site, we can discuss the different options and layout and get a more detailed estimate. We can do a layout with marking flags, a laser transit, and drawings. Doing this helps make sure both contractor and homeowner are on the same page.

My standard best practice is to dig "test holes" ahead of construction to ensure soil suitability. For large projects, this will likely be done weeks or months ahead of building, or for smaller projects, it might be done right before construction. "Test holes" are dug using an excavator or backhoe and are only a few feet wide and four-plus feet deep. This process is where we can assess the soil layers and what is truly under the surface. If large rocks or a rock shelf are found, we might have to rethink our plans or budget. What is ideal is a good layer of quality clay dirt, where there is enough to build the dam while still leaving plenty for the "bowl" of the pond.

We can determine if the clay material is acceptable by doing small tests right in the hole. We can roll the clay into a ball and see how well it adheres using a little water. Another way is rolling the clay material like a rope. Similar results are desired like the ball method, but this method can help assess moisture content and compact correctly. A more in-depth process uses a 5-gallon bucket with small holes drilled in the bottom. Fill the bottom a few inches with clean 1" rock. On top of that, you pack in a 2-4" layer of your clay material; this mimics the clay liner of your pond. Add a measurable amount of water to the bucket and observe the water loss over two-plus days. Minimal water loss is preferred, but each project is different. Soil samples can also be sent off to a lab to be analyzed by soil scientists; this is an uncommon method in our area. If your soils are less than ideal, there are options; the most common are hauling in good clay, bentonite, and manufactured liners. These topics are a whole conversation on their own, so I won't go into it this time.

If you came here looking for pricing, I could help you... maybe. I operate in rural Southwest Missouri, which I find to have some of the lowest excavation/ equipment rates in the United States. Also, keep in mind that this is 2022, where nothing is normal. We have record inflation, fuel prices, and an unstable economy. These are general ballpark ideas with hundreds of variables to dictate the actual cost. There is also a big difference between a livestock pond vs. a "Gold Standard" recreation pond.

- 1/4 acre or smaller: $2,000-5,000.

- 1/4 acre to 1/2 acre: $4,000-$10,000.

- 1/2 acre to 3/4 acre: $7,000-$12,000.

- 1 acre: $9,000-$20,000.

- 1 acre or larger: $6,000-$20,000 per acre.

*Again this is far from an actual estimate, this is a general idea for a person to form a budget for their pond project.

Quality-built pond checklist:

- Proper, low seepage soils.

- Properly built dam with a compacted clay core.

- Appropriate amount of runoff per size. Yes, there can be too much or not enough.

- Appropriately sized overflow and emergency spillway.

- Maintainable and managed exposed slopes to decrease erosion.

- Methods to reduce sediment runoff into the pond.

-The Missouri Pond Handbook is an excellent resource for pond health, stocking rates, and maintenance.

-Pond maintenance, such as cleanouts and best practices, is another topic that requires its own conversation, which I plan to address in the future.

When a pond is constructed ethically, it can be a worthwhile project for both the property owner and the ecosystem they are stewards of. My motivation to publish this piece is to help guide anyone with questions on a pond project. There is much more not covered here but feel free to reach out to me with any questions. Also, if you live in SW Missouri, I would be happy to earn your business.

-Jonathon Schwalm

Clear Creek Service LLC, Manager

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