news from the waterfront by Tim Matson

Power Ponds

Pond ownership is a way of life for hundreds of thousands of Americans. Dr. Robert Carlson, at the Water Resources Research Institute at Kent State University, Ohio, estimates there are roughly 500,000 constructed ponds in the U.S. "But it's impossible to say, it's like trying to count the stars."

The evolution of the American pond from a source of water for livestock and crop irrigation to a backyard beach happened over the past 30 years or so, as a generation discovered the recreational pleasures of a backyard waterfront: swimming, skating, fishing.

As we move into the 21 st century, ponds are evolving again. Clearly, recreational attractions will continue to inspire builders, as will enhancements for waterfowl and wildlife. But a new and perhaps more significant dimension of small scale water use is opening up. I call them Power Ponds.

It's a phrase that suggests electricity, and indeed many of these ponds are being tapped to drive small hydro electric generators, micro mutations of their multi megawatt generating cousins. But it's also a new kind of liquid muscle. Power ponds are being used for geothermal heating and cooling, for both homes and larger installations (businesses, factories, clubs). They're being filled with salt water and used as solar ponds to generate hot air and hot water, which can be used in manufacturing, food processing, and energy generation. Ponds are being dug, retrofitted, filtered, and used for domestic drinking water, a very handy asset where wells come up dry, or drought interrupts normal water supplies.

Power ponds are also emerging due to new developments in wind power. Highly efficient, economical wind pumps can fill ponds that wouldn't have existed before; and also pump compressed air into stagnant water to control alga and unwanted vegetation, improve dissolved oxygen levels, and destratify temperatures. Good water is real power, as many pond owners well know.

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Water power preceeded electricity and petroleum energy by thousands of years. By harnessing the energy of gravity, falling water could be used for irrigation, milling (grain, lumber, fruit), and creating reservoirs of drinking water. In northern climates, ice cut from lakes and ponds was the original summer refrigerant. If you doubt the significance of hydro energy, try to imagine the fate of the American colonies without their self-sufficient water powered mills and agriculture.

It's been two hundred years since fossil fuel energy eclipsed water power, and radically changed the world. There have been amazing benefits and appalling damages. A glance at the current global situation reveals a planet facing huge challenges, most of them caused or exacerbated by fossil fuels. Exploding population growth and economic development, especially in developing countries, tempts us to rachet up fuel consumption, threatening human health, the environment, and the planet itself. The earth has become one huge gas station, and one day the supplies will run out.

But oil isn't the only resource we're abusing. Fresh water is dwindling fast, a casualty of inefficient agricultural practices, wasteful sewage systems, archaic manufacturing processes, and pollution. A front page story in the New York Times reported that in many drought stricken regions of the U.S., people are beginning to realize that "water may indeed be a commodity more precious than oil… a handful of corporations have been saying that water will be for this century what oil was for the last." Indeed, bottled water sells for more than gasoline. What does that make a quarter acre 500,000 gallon pond worth?

Water has the potential to do more than fill Perrier bottles and toilet bowls. Water can accomplish many of the things that oil can, at negligible cost and without damaging the environment. So why not use it? Mostly because the system is now setup to run on fossil fuels, and it's profitable. Nevertheless, across the country, people are beginning to tap into water power. As might be expected with new technologies, many of these folks are innovators, hands-on inventors, and first users. But water is also an old technology, and some of these devices are simply spiffed up versions of proven systems. Just about anyone can dig a power pond.

Check out the Earth Ponds Source Book for dozens of listings for power pond applications.

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