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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Any alteration of a wetland requires permits. This ditch was plugged, then filled with water to provide habitat for wildlife and fish. © Art Kitchen, USFWS

December 2000

A Walden of one's own

Building a pond can be a pleasant project – or lead to a swamp of complications.

Lisa Gaumnitz


Any alteration of a wetland requires permits. This ditch was plugged, then filled with water to provide habitat for wildlife and fish.

© Art Kitchen, USFWS

"A lake is the landscape's most beautiful and expressive feature," Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden. "It is earth's eye; looking into which the beholder measures the depth of his own nature."

Residents and visitors alike have found the same inspiration and entertainment in Wisconsin waters as Thoreau found on his woodland pond near Concord, Mass. Now they're seeking those same qualities in their backyards.

A strong economy and the short supply and spiraling cost of lakefront property have sent Wisconsinites on a pond-building spree. In the last 10 years alone, the number of people seeking permits to build ponds has swelled four-fold.

Bob Langjahr, president of Aquatic Biologists Inc., a Fond du Lac-based firm specializing in pond design and management, has seen his business grow in 20 years from a handful to 2,220 ponds and lakes a year. "What used to be a quarter-acre pond is now an acre," he says. "And people are building 10-, 15- and 18-acre private lakes."

As ponds crop up in cornfields, wetlands and just about every other setting imaginable, homeowners have discovered – some the hard way – that pond stewardship demands careful consideration and ongoing commitment. A properly designed and built pond can become a valuable natural asset to the local landscape. If the job was poorly planned from the outset, however, the result can be a disappointing watery mess that can have disastrous consequences.

Dug by man, governed by nature and law

Langjahr's biggest challenge, and perhaps his most important, is helping clients understand that a quality pond takes much more than digging a hole and filling it with water. A pond may be manmade, but it's bound by the laws of nature and the state.

"Design is so important," he says. "You need to focus your time and energy up front. I've seen too many ponds that were maintenance nightmares as built."

Langjahr, who worked as a DNR fisheries technician and biologist in the late 1960s and early '70s, counsels his clients to work with nature. He begins by discussing expectations. "We talk about what they expect that pond will be like at 1, 5, 10 and 25 years later," he says. "I let them know if their plans are realistic for their site. Everything is site-specific, and everything is based on what the customer's realistic goals are – and I underline realistic."

Potential pond owners need to match their goals to the lay of the land on the site and the soil type under the pond, particularly if they want a swimming or fishing pond. The pond's contours should be shaped to keep runoff from entering. If there's a beach, it should be placed in a spot where winds infrequently blow, to prevent the build-up of sediment and decayed vegetation. Porous soils may require a liner, which boosts construction costs.

The water source, land uses near the pond, and drainage from the entire watershed must be considered. Ponds filled with groundwater stay cooler and are better protected from runoff. Phosphorus, sediment and other substances that dissolve as rainwater flows across land will affect ponds filled by rain. Runoff from the entire watershed will find its way into a stream-fed pond.

Many people think about building ponds attached to streams or in existing wetlands, where there's a ready water source and soils that hold water. Such sites are more complex from a regulatory and biological standpoint, and mistakes carry a greater risk to natural ecosystems.

"When you take a stream or wetland nature created and try to install a manmade system in it, you can create all kinds of problems," says Dan Helsel, a DNR Water Management Specialist. "You can degrade water quality and shift the fish and wildlife community by changing habitat. You may introduce an exotic species or favor one that's environmentally damaging if a pond is stocked with fish that escape to a connected natural water body. The changes can ripple through the ecosystem."

To prevent such damage, state, federal and local governments require permits and approvals to construct, stock and maintain most ponds. Waterways and ponds that are in wetlands, near or connected to any other waterway will likely require permits from the DNR, even if the pond is placed on private land.

The state permit application automatically will be forwarded to the Army Corps of Engineers to review for a federal permit. For a Corps permit to be valid, the DNR must either issue its own permit or certify that the pond will not significantly impair the function of wetlands, and that options that would not affect the wetland are not available.

Do I need a permit?
A DNR permit is necessary if the prospective pond is:

  • in a wetland

  • connected by a channel, pipe or by any feature that confines or directs flow to or from a navigable waterway

  • within 500 feet of a navigable water

  • an existing pond that you want to drain to compact sediments and in some cases control aquatic plants by drying out the bed

  • created by dredging, grading or constructing a dam in a navigable waterway

"Assume you need a permit from one agency or another," says Gregg Breese, a DNR water management specialist based in Milwaukee who issues 200 to 300 permits a year for recreation and stormwater detention ponds. "Clearly identify your goals and we (DNR) can either tell you parameters to use in your design, or tell you there's problems. "

If the applicant doesn't address the problems or fails to get the proper permits, the permit holder – the property owner – is on the hook. Violations can result in fines and a requirement that pond owners restore the lake, stream or wetland to its original state, Breese says.

Langjahr advises people to get all approvals from all agencies in writing, and to make notes on any concerns the agencies have. "If you really want the pond, you can address those concerns," he says.

Maintenance is a must

Dan Helsel says pond builders must make decisions about the type of pond they want. "Too often people expect a pond to do it all: provide good swimming, fishing, aesthetics, and a place for wildlife. You need to prioritize which qualities are the most important to you, because you're not going to get them all."

The murky, peaty soil of a wetland may provide plenty of nutrients to feed aquatic plants – nice for waterfowl, but not so pleasant for swimmers. Fish and wildlife don't often work together in the same manmade pond. Fish need colder, deeper water and wildlife need shallower ponds with warmer temperatures and more algae, aquatic plants and nutrients.

"You'll no sooner have your pond dug than nature will begin to stock it," Thoreau wrote. Seeds and fragments are carried in on the wind, the feet of waterfowl, or on the tufts of fur-bearing animals. Despite an owner's best efforts to keep certain species out, nature brings life to all ponds – plants, bacteria, eggs and insects – and ongoing maintenance will be needed.

Karl and Carol Ralian knew their three-acre pond near the Bark River in Waukesha County would require some attention, but they weren't quite prepared for how much time and effort pond maintenance would take.

The Railans enjoy a quiet moment on their pond. They have discovered that pond maintenance can be a real labor of love. © Robert Queen
The Railans enjoy a quiet moment on their pond. They have discovered that pond maintenance can be a real labor of love.

© Robert Queen

After a frustrating, three-year struggle to build the pond, which included working with three different contractors, filamentous algae quickly took over. "It was like the sorcerer's apprentice – we'd pull it out and it kept coming back in thicker than before," Karl says. "And when you put it up on shore, boy did it stink." This year, the couple spent three weekends battling dense floating mats of curly pondweed and Eurasian water milfoil.

Can anyone else
use my pond?
As a state with a strong water recreation tradition, most surface water in Wisconsin is public. If you construct a pond so that you can paddle to your nearest lake or stream, you must allow others to paddle up to your pond.

If your pond is completely surrounded by private property, no one can use the pond without the property owner's permission to cross the land. Other new ponds installed after 1988 are private unless your DNR permit declares otherwise.

Constructed ponds may be declared public if they will have an ongoing effect on public waters. If your pond was built between 1961 and 1988 and it required a DNR permit, state law automatically made it public water.

Despite this backbreaking work and other drawbacks, the Ralians say the pond has turned out better than they expected given the travails of getting it in the ground. They kayak and row, swim, and enjoy watching the deer and waterfowl that flock to the pond. "It's just so relaxing or I should say, can be, when we're not working on it," Carol says.

Bernie Ziegler's West Bend pond represented 25 years of dreaming, months of careful planning, and knowledge gained from previous ponds on the 300-acre property that didn't hold water because the soil was so porous.

Ziegler, his wife Liz and their three daughters began planning for this particular pond by holding a family talk about what they wanted. "The kids and my wife voted for a swimming pool. I said no way – but I'd come as close to a swimming pool as I could." Fishing would be a secondary goal.

He hired Langjahr to help him design the pond to meet those goals. "I took Bob's lead as to what it would require to have a clean pond and ecological balance," he says.

A contractor excavated a valley to create a one-acre, 25-foot-deep pond and slope the shores back steeply to keep out runoff. The pond was lined, a spillway installed on the northeast shore to collect and more easily get rid of surface debris and algae, and the pond was stocked with fathead minnows and hybrid bluegills. Seeds of native plants were sown on the field above the pond to attract deer and turkey. Irises and bulrushes were planted at the far end. Now as Ziegler surveys the finished pond from his deck, he sees a tropical blue oasis ringed with colored rock. A paddleboat rests on its pea gravel beach, and a swimming raft bobs nearby. Not a leaf, a weed, nor hint of algae mars the pond's glassy surface. "It's better than I anticipated," Ziegler says,. "When you sit up there and look out, you've got it all there."

He was on the site every day to make sure everything went according to plan, and he believes that made a big difference. "I looked at this as more of a hobby, a personal project, than a construction project," he says. "My advice to people is do your homework. Get educated. And team up with people who complement your needs."

Dan Helsel puts it like this: "Sure, you can build a pond that doesn't conform to the location, or you can try to make a wildlife pond when the site's better suited to fish. But if the location does not match your desired pond type, you will continually be battling Mother Nature." And she usually wins in the end.

Lisa Gaumnitz is Public Affairs Manager for DNR's water programs.

Location + law = type
The natural conditions of your site and regulatory restrictions will determine the type of pond you can build.

Wetland ponds: Some wetland types, for example sedge meadows, forested wetlands, cedar or alder swamps, provide critical habitat that should not be converted to open water. In other settings, wetland ponds can be easily constructed and maintained if they conform to the natural setting. With shallow depths and gradual side slopes surrounded by natural vegetation, these ponds will attract deer, waterfowl, songbirds, frogs and turtles. However, wetland ponds often have very fertile sediments, which encourage rapid growth of aquatic plants and algae. In summer, nighttime respiration by plants and algae depletes the water of oxygen, making water conditions unsuitable for cool water fish. In winter, oxygen is used up when large quantities of plants and algae decompose, causing "winterkill" conditions. Federal, state and local regulations that apply to wetlands also apply to wetland ponds.

In-stream ponds: With a dam and some excavation, ponds can be created on an existing stream or at a spring head. Such a pond has the potential, over time, to distort the stream's quality by trapping nutrients and sediment, warming water temperatures and reducing oxygen. Ponds built "online" usually require an intensive permit review process and in some circumstances, may be declared public waters by the Department to protect the public rights associated with all waters of the state. Permits for ponds constructed on navigable streams are reviewed by fish, wildlife and water quality staff, and also require the preparation of an environmental assessment and publication of a notice.

Upland ponds: Ponds built in upland areas can meet many different uses provided a good water source can be found. Upland ponds will also require some sort of bottom layer – usually natural clay or a manufactured pond liner to prevent water from seeping out.

Many upland ponds are fed by rainfall that runs into the pond, or by surface runoff. Runoff can provide good water quality if natural buffer strips along the shoreline filter it first. If the runoff feeding your pond flows over heavily fertilized lawns, drains farm fields or residential subdivisions, you can expect nutrients, sediments and contaminants to limit your pond's water quality.

Groundwater wells or diversions from nearby streams may be higher in nutrient levels (phosphorus, nitrogen, etc.) or lower in oxygen levels than your pond can handle – so have the water tested first. Depending on the type of well or the type of diversion, federal, state and local permits may be required.

Dan Helsel, water management specialist, DNR Bureau of Fisheries Management and Habitat Protection.