news from the waterfront by Tim Matson


It’s time again for our annual reflections on the biggest pond splashes of the past year.

1) Climate Change. Again tops the charts for pond stories. In the east we had another year of rain rain rain, and then just when we thought we could wring out the towel, a tropical storm named Irene blasted Vermont and parts of the northeast. (Over 24 hours, I had ten inches of rain at my place.) But in the southwest severe drought made ponds disappear. Like the song says, what have they done to the rain?

It’s not like wet weather is something new around here. This is the second or third or fourth really
wet year; I’m losing count. The effect on ponds is
not good. First, as far as building new ponds goes, well, building stops, or slows way down. It’s difficult or impossible to work in extreme wet weather. Machines tear up the turf, soil and clay is too wet to shape and compact, basins need constant pumping, etc. Evaluating pond sites is difficult because test pits stay full even in normally dry weather, so it’s hard to judge dry weather ground tables. In other words, the water supply seems great, but what happens when we finally do get dry weather? Will you need supplementary water? A liner?

The effect on contractor finances is rough. The economy is bad enough as is, and then the rain really throws a spoke in the wheel. I have concerns that we will be losing good contractors to climate change as well as the economy, not to mention general aging. Where will the next generation of pond contractors come from? Most of the guys I work with are not exactly spring chiickens… Remember, after all the homework and permitting you do to prepare for pond construction or repairs, it’s the saavy (dare I say artistic?) contractor who makes it happen.

With the wet weather seems to come warmer temperatures, which pushes back the arrival of
good ice for skating and fishing. Large ponds and lakes are especially slow to freeze, and you see
fishing shanties parked near the water, unable to
be trailered onto the ice. However, here’s one shortcut to good ice: it may be relatively easy to get a good sheet of ice on a flooded field, with little worries if someone does fall through because the water is just a few inches deep.

Here’s a link to a site with safety recommendations for people and vehicles using the ice.

Whether the ice comes late or not, there’s an interesting benefit with the approach of cool weather. As the water cools down before freezing, algal blooms die off and the water often clears up dramatically. It’s magical to see through the water clear down five feet or more, after its mysteries were hidden all summer. Hey, there’s that diving mask I lost last July!

One of my clients had a turbidity problem all summer, and we tried several tests to determine if there was a problem with suspended clay or phosphorous. Negative. Maybe it was tannins leaching in from trees on the upslope watershed? Hard to tell. I suggested holding off on drawdowns or dredging until the cold weather really kicked in, and then reexamine the water. Sure enough, as the water dropped close to freezing the turbidity cleared up! Best I can determine, much of the problem was an algal bloom that thrived in warmer water. I suggested that next year a cleanout of nutrient rich sediment should be followed by installation of an aeration system to slow down further nutrient loading. Gives new meaning to the benefits of “a cooling off period.”

One last word on Irene. Our rivers flooded, roads washed out, houses and businesses and cemetaries floated away, but for the most part the ponds held.
Yes, there were a few large municipal ponds that
leaked, and I heard of one snowmaking pond that flooded, but there are tens of thousands of man
made ponds in the northeast, and the dams and spillways handled the rain and runoff. I’d say that’s a real tribute to the builders, owners, and contractors who have maintained their ponds.

2) Aging Ponds. Here’s another phenomenon that
I’m seeing frequently, and this year was no exception. A lot of ponds were built in the 70s and 80s, and if they included steel piping, those pipes are corroding and rusting. If those pipes were feeder systems from a stream or other source, repairs may involve a pretty straightforward replacement; and putting repairs off for a while might bother your water supply, but not threaten pond integrity. But if the pipe involved is a discharge spillway through a dam, you’d better pay attention. I’m seeing a lot of standpipes rusting at the intake, and along the barrel, and elsewhere. As the pipe rots away, leaks may lower the pond waterlevel. And if the leaks get bad enough, the system could blow out and tear the dam apart and flood land downstream. It’s not a situation I would procrastinate about. Plans for repairs can involve various options that get confusing. Tear out the entire system and replace? (Not cheap.) Fix the standpipe alone and save money? (How long will the rest of the system last?) Tear out the system – or plug it up – and replace the pipe with a natural spillway? Lots to think about.



Regardless of whether many old ponds had decaying
piping or not, there were many that needed
a good cleanout. Years of accumulating sediment,
leaves, etc, in the water; as well as trees and shrubs encroaching on the shore and dam, demanded
maintenance. Some of these ponds had long time owners, others were recent buyers of the property.
Some were summer/weekend people, some year round residents. But all understood that the time had come
to do the upkeep – or lose the pond. I’m glad that
Vermont wetland laws allow for cleanouts of existing ponds without the need for special permitting.

A word of warning regarding cleanouts. In one of my pond encounters I saw a pond with a nasty invasion of pond scum/algae across the bottom. It turned out
this plant growth was something completely new to
the pond. A couple of years ago the owner hired a contractor to dig out 30 years of accumulated sediment to deepen the pond. There had been no algae problem then. Well, the pond got deeper alright, but the next year the algae invaded. The best the owner could deduce, the excavator that was used had brought in fragments of algae from an earlier job, and infected the pond. It’s the same thing that happens when fishing boats travel from lake to lake spreading milfoil and other invasive plants. I guess the best you can do is caution your contractor to wash down his equipment thoroughly before showing up.

3) Aeration. Several clients with poor water conditions installed aeration systems and improved pond water dramatically. These have been mostly instances where the problem was manifested in algal blooms, not suspended clays or tannin tainted water. In one case a supplementary inflow of water was also relocated so it entered the pond on the end opposite the outflow. (It had been coming in right next to the discharge channel, to little benefical effect.) Now it creates a nice current across the pond that helps flush out algae and debris, as well as infusing the pond with dissolved oxygen, and cooling the water temperature. Some aeration systems are electric grid powered, a few windmill systems. I haven’t seen much evidence of solar powered aeration due to the expense of the systems, and concerns about battery power storage. One pond owner was concerned about noise from the compressor disrupting quiet at the pond, so he located the compressor in the woods half way between his house and the pond. Silence.

4) Budgets. A continuing trend is financial frugality. I’ve see some very attractive new ponds
come in for half what they might have cost before the crash of 2008. Land owners are doing more shopping around, which prompts contractors to get
more competitive. Alas, a thinner wallet is just that, so I’m hearing that fewer new ponds are getting built, and repairs are being put off. It’s one thing to shelve that new pond project, but postponing repairs on a dam that might flood the neighborhood? Nothing to put off for long.

5) The Value of Existing Ponds. Well, here’s another
phenomenon that doesn’t surprise me because I’ve been seeing this for years, and if anything it’s truer than ever. Unlike old houses, old cars, old just about anything -- many ponds maintain or increase their value with age. Why? Because not only don’t they build them like they used to, but you aren’t allowed to build them like they used to. Many of the best ponds were built in wet areas that qualify now as wetlands, and if you tried to build that same pond again, forget it. Same for ponds fed by large streams. Do Not Trespass. So for people thinking of a move to the country, and maybe then building a pond, consider also the advantages of buying property with an existing pond. It might be a whole lot easier to clean out and repair an old pond than try to start from scratch. And if you’re selling property with a pond, don’t undervalue its worth.

6) The Splash That Didn’t Happen. If there’s one big disappointment on the pond front, it’s the
aquaculture that isn’t. I remember when so many pond owners had dreams of raising trout and other fresh water crops to go along with their garden veggies and home grown eggs, etc. Didn’t happen. The problem is complicated. Fish are extremely vulnerable to predators, unless raised in cages, which requires fish food and constant feeding. Besides, most commercial fish food is not terribly wholesome. Raise worms in compost for fish food? Possible but hasn’t caught on. I see that a lot of bass are grown in the west and south, but it looks more about sport fishing; and you can find farm grown trout and tilapia in some groceries, but it is not happening on a homestead scale like we see local cheeses and truck crops in the north. There is a guy in Vermont experimenting with small shallow ponds to grow rice, and maybe that’s the direction pond crops will take. In fact, as the climate warms up, the season for pond rice will lengthen. Vermont saki from Vermont ponds? Here’s mud in your eye!

7) Folks will have their ponds. Despite the weather and the economy, interest in building new ponds or rejuventing old ones was higher than ever.



January 9, 2012

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