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Planning and Building an Excavated Pond

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Excavated ponds are the simplest to build in relatively flat terrain. Because their capacity is obtained almost solely by excavation, their practical size is limited. They are best suited to locations where the demand for water is small. Because excavated ponds can be built to expose a minimum water surface area in proportion to their volume, they are advantageous in places where evaporation losses are high and water is scarce. The ease with which they can be constructed, their compactness, their relative safety from flood-flow damage, and their low maintenance requirements make them popular in many sections of the country.

Two kinds of excavated ponds are possible. One is fed by surface runoff and the other is fed by ground water aquifers, usually layers of sand and gravel. Some ponds may be fed from both of these sources.

 A well planned and built pond
A well planned and built pond blends with the terrain and characteristic features of the land

The general location of an excavated pond depends largely on the purpose or purposes for which the water is to be used and on other factors discussed previously in this handbook. The specific location is often influenced by topography.

Excavated ponds fed by surface runoff can be located in almost any kind of topography. They are, however, most satisfactory and most commonly used in areas of comparatively flat, but well-drained terrain. A pond can be located in a broad natural drainageway or to one side of a drainageway if the runoff can be diverted into the pond. The low point of a natural depression is often a good location. After the pond is filled, excess runoff escapes through regular drainageways.

Excavated ponds fed by ground water aquifers can be located only in areas of flat or nearly flat topography. If possible, they should be located where the permanent water table is within a few feet of the surface.


If an excavated pond is to be fed by surface runoff, enough impervious soil at the site is essential to avoid excess seepage losses. The most desirable sites are where fine-textured clay and silty clay extend well below the proposed pond depth. Sites where sandy clay extends to adequate depths generally are satisfactory. Avoid sites where the soil is porous or is underlain by strata of coarse-textured sand or sand-gravel mixtures unless you are prepared to bear the expense of an artificial lining. Avoid soil underlain by limestone containing crevices, sinks, or channels.

The performance of nearby ponds that are fed by runoff and in a similar soil is a good indicator of the suitability of a proposed site. Supplement such observations of existing ponds by boring enough test holes at intervals over the proposed pond site to determine accurately the kind of material there. You can get some indication of permeability by filling the test holes with water. The seepage indicates what to expect of a pond excavated in the same kind of material.

If an excavated pond is to be fed from a water-bearing sand or a sand-gravel layer, the layer must be at a depth that can be reached practically and economically by the excavating equipment. This depth seldom exceeds 20 feet. The water-bearing layer must be thick enough and permeable enough to yield water at a rate that satisfies the maximum expected demand for water and overcomes evaporation losses.

Thoroughly investigate sites proposed for aquifer-fed excavated ponds. Bore test holes at intervals over the site to determine the existence and physical characteristics of the water-bearing material. The water level in the test holes indicates the normal water level in the completed pond. The vertical distance between this level and the ground surface determines the volume of overburden or excavation needed that does not contribute to the usable pond capacity, but may increase the construction cost considerably. From an economic standpoint, this vertical distance between water level and ground surface generally should not exceed 6 feet.

Check the rate at which the water rises in the test holes. A rapid rate of rise indicates a high-yielding aquifer. If water is removed from the pond at a rapid rate, as for irrigation, the water can be expected to return to its normal level within a short time after removal has ceased. A slow rate of rise in the test holes indicates a low-yielding aquifer and a slow rate of recovery in the pond. Check the test hole during drier seasons to avoid being misled by a high water table that is only temporary.

Spillway and inlet requirements

If you locate an excavated pond fed by surface runoff on sloping terrain, you can use a part of the excavated material for a small low dam around the lower end and sides of the pond to increase its capacity. You need an auxiliary spillway to pass excess storm runoff around the small dam. Follow the procedures for planning the spillway and provide protection against erosion as discussed in the Excavating the earth spillway section.

Ponds excavated in areas of flat terrain generally require constructed spillways. If surface runoff must enter an excavated pond through a channel or ditch rather than through a broad shallow drainageway, the overfall from the ditch bottom to the bottom of the pond can create a serious erosion problem unless the ditch is protected. Scouring can occur in the side slope of the pond and for a considerable distance upstream in the ditch. The resulting sediment tends to reduce the depth and capacity of the pond. Protect the slope by placing one or more lengths of rigid pipe in the ditch and extending them over the side slope of the excavation. The extended part of the pipe or pipes can be cantilevered or supported with timbers. The diam- eter of the pipes depends on the peak rate of runoff that can be expected from a 10-year frequency storm. If you need more than one pipe inlet, the combined capacity should equal or exceed the estimated peak rate of runoff.

In areas where a considerable amount of silt is carried by the inflowing water, you should provide a desilting area or filterstrip in the drainageway immediately above the pond to remove the silt before it enters the pond. This area or strip should be as wide as or somewhat wider than the pond and 100 feet or more long. After you prepare a seedbed, fertilize, and seed the area to an appropriate mix of grasses and forbs. As the water flows through the vegetation, the silt settles out and the water entering the pond is relatively silt free.