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Planning and Building an Excavated Pond - Building the pond

Article Index

Building the pond  

Clear the pond area of all undesired vegetation. Mark the outside limits of the proposed excavation with stakes. On the stakes indicate the depth of cut from the ground surface to the pond bottom.

Excavation and placement of the waste material are the principal items of work in building this type pond.

The kind of excavating equipment used depends on the climatic and physical conditions at the site and on what equipment is available.

Excavated Ponds
Excavated Ponds

In low-rainfall areas where water is unlikely to accumulate in the excavation, you can use almost any kind of available equipment. Tractor-pulled wheeled scrapers, dragline excavators, and track-type tractors equipped with a bulldozer blade are generally used. Bulldozers can only push the excavated material, not carry it; if the length of push is long, using these machines is expensive.

In high-rainfall areas and in areas where the water table is within the limits of excavation, a dragline excavator is commonly used because it is the only kind of equipment that operates satisfactorily in any appreciable depth of water. For ponds fed by ground water aquifers, a dragline is normally used to excavate the basic pond.

Excavate and place the waste material as close as possible to the lines and grades staked on the site. If you use a dragline excavator, you generally need other kinds of equipment to stack or spread the waste material and shape the edge to an irregular configuration. Bulldozers are most commonly used. Graders, either tractor-pulled or self-propelled, can be used to good advantage, particularly if the waste material is to be shaped.

Sealing the pond

Excessive seepage in ponds is generally because the site is poor; that is, one where the soils in the impounding area are too permeable to hold water. Select- ing a poor site is often the result of inadequate site investigations and could have been avoided. In some places no satisfactory site is available, but the need for water is great enough to justify using a site that is somewhat less than satisfactory. In this case the original pond design must include plans for reducing seepage by sealing (fig. 38). In some places excessive removal of the soil mantle during construction, usually to provide material for the embankment, exposes highly pervious material, such as sand, gravel, or rock containing cracks, crevices, or channels. This can be avoided by carefully selecting the source of embank- ment material.

To prevent excessive seepage, reduce the permeability of the soils to a point at which losses are insignificant or at least tolerable. The method depends largely on the proportions of coarse-grained sand and gravel and of fine-grained clay and silt in the soil.


Some pond areas can be made relatively impervious by compaction alone if the material contains a wide range of particle sizes (small gravel or coarse sand to fine sand) and enough clay (10 percent or more) and silt to effect a seal. This is the least expensive method of those presented in this handbook. Its use, however, is limited to these soil conditions as well as by the depth of water to be impounded.

The procedure is simple. Clear the pond area of all trees and other vegetation. Fill all stump holes, crevices, and similar areas with impervious material. Scarify the soil to a depth of 16 to 18 inches with a disk, rototiller, pulverizer, or similar equipment. Remove all rocks and tree roots. Roll the loosened soil under optimum moisture conditions in a dense, tight layer with four to six passes of a sheepsfoot roller in the same manner as for compacting earth embankments.

Make the compacted seal no less than 12 inches thick where less than 10 feet of water is to be impounded. Because seepage losses vary directly with the depth of water impounded over an area, increase the thickness of the compacted seal proportionately if the depth of water impounded exceeds 10 feet or more. The thickness of the compacted seal can be determined using equation 7.

d = thickness of compacted seal
k = coefficient of permeability of compacted seal, which is assumed to be 0.003 fpd
unless testing is done H = water depth
v = allowable specific discharge which is assumed to be 0.028 fpd unless otherwise specified

As an example, assume a pond with a depth, H, of 12 feet. No soil samples were taken for laboratory testing. Therefore, use the assumed values for k and v. Calculate the required minimum thickness of the compacted seal. Using the preceding equation:

If soil samples were taken and permeability tests were performed on the material of the compacted seal at the density it is to be placed, a thickness less than what was calculated may be possible. Without knowing whether the soil underlying the compacted layer will act as a filter for the compacted layer, the minimum thickness should never be less than 12 inches.

Compact the soils in two or more layers not exceeding 9 inches uncompacted over the area. Remove and stockpile the top layer or layers while the bottom layer is being compacted.

Clay blankets

Pond areas containing high percentages of coarse-grained soils, but lacking enough clay to prevent excessive seepage, can be sealed by blanketing. Blanket the entire area over which water is to be impounded as well as the upstream slope of the embankment. The blanket should consist of a well-graded material containing at least 20 percent clay. The requirements for good blanket material are about the same as those described for earth embankments. You can usually obtain material for the blanket from a borrow area close enough to the pond to permit hauling at a reasonable cost.

Thickness of the blanket depends on the depth of water to be impounded. The minimum compacted thickness is 12 inches for all depths of water under 10 feet. Increase this thickness by 2 inches for each foot of water over 10 feet and above.

Construction is similar to that for earth embankments. Remove all trees and other vegetation and fill all holes and crevices before hauling earth material from the borrow area to the pond site in tractor-pulled wheeled scrapers or similar equipment. Spread the material uniformly over the area in layers 6 to 8 inches thick. Compact each layer thoroughly, under optimum moisture conditions, by four to six passes of a sheepsfoot roller before placing the next layer.

Protect clay blankets against cracking that results from drying and against rupture caused by freezing and thawing. Spread a cover of gravel 12 to 16 inches thick over the blanket below the anticipated high water level. Use rock riprap or other suitable material to protect areas where the waterflow into the pond is concentrated.


Adding bentonite is another method of reducing excessive seepage in soils containing high percentages of coarse-grained particles and not enough clay. Bentonite is a fine-textured colloidal clay. When wet it absorbs several times its own weight of water and, at complete saturation, swells as much as 8 to 20 times its original volume. Mixed in the correct proportions with well-graded coarse-grained material, thoroughly compacted and then saturated, the particles of bentonite swell until they fill the pores to the point that the mixture is nearly impervious to water. On drying, however, bentonite returns to its original volume leaving cracks. For this reason, sealing with bentonite usually is not recommended for ponds in which the water level is expected to fluctuate widely. A laboratory analysis of the pond area material to determine the rate of application is essential.

Before selecting this method of sealing a pond, locate the nearest satisfactory source of bentonite and investigate the freight rates. If the source is far from the pond site, the cost may prohibit the use of bentonite.

As with other methods, clear the pond area of all vegetation. Fill all holes or crevices, and cover and compact areas of exposed gravel with suitable fill material.

The soil moisture level in the area to be treated is important. Investigate it before applying bentonite. The moisture level should be optimum for good compaction. If the area is too wet, postpone sealing until moisture conditions are satisfactory. If it is too dry, add water by sprinkling.

Spread the bentonite carefully and uniformly over the area to be treated at the rate determined by the laboratory analysis. This rate usually is 1 to 3 pounds per square foot of area. Thoroughly mix the bentonite with the surface soil to a depth that will result in a 6-inch compacted layer. This generally is an uncompacted thickness of approximately 8 to 9 inches. A rototiller is best for this operation, but a disk or similar equipment can be used. Then compact the area with four to six passes of a sheepsfoot roller.

If considerable time elapses between applying the bentonite and filling the pond, protecting the treated area against drying and cracking may be necessary. A mulch of straw or hay pinned to the surface by the final passes of the sheepsfoot roller gives this protection. Use rock riprap or other suitable material to protect areas where water inflow into the treated area is concentrated.

Chemical additives

Because of the structure or arrangement of the clay particles, seepage is often excessive in fine-grained clay soils. If these particles are arranged at random with end-to-plate or end-to-end contacts, they form an open, porous, or honeycomb structure; the soil is said to be aggregated. Applying small amounts of certain chemicals to these porous aggregates may result in collapse of the open structure and rearrangement of the clay particles. This dispersed structure reduces soil permeability. The chemicals used are called dis- persing agents.

The soils in the pond area should contain more than 50 percent fine-grained material (silt and clay) and at least 15 percent clay for chemical treatment to be effective. Chemical treatment is not effective in coarse-grained soils.

Although many soluble salts are dispersing agents, sodium polyphosphates and sodium chloride (com- mon salt) are most commonly used. Of the sodium polyphosphates, tetrasodium pyrophosphate and sodium tripolyphosphate are most effective. Soda ash, technical grade 99 to 100 percent sodium carbonate, can also be used. Sodium polyphosphates generally are applied at a rate of 0.05 to 0.10 pound per square foot, and sodium chloride at a rate of 0.20 to 0.33 pound per square foot. Soda ash is applied at a rate of 0.10 to 0.20 pound per square foot. A laboratory analysis of the soil in the pond area is essential to determine which dispersing agent will be most effective and to determine the rate at which it should be applied.

Mix the dispersing agent with the surface soil and then compact it to form a blanket. Thickness of the blanket depends on the depth of water to be impounded. For water less than 10 feet deep, the compacted blanket should be at least 12 inches thick. For greater depths, the thickness should be increased at the rate of 2 inches per foot of water depth from 10 feet and above.

The soil moisture level in the area to be treated should be near the optimum level for good compaction. If the soil is too wet, postpone treatment. Polyphosphates release water from soil, and the material may become too wet to handle. If the soil is too dry, add water by sprinkling.

Clear the area to be treated of all vegetation and trash. Cover rock outcrops and other exposed areas of highly permeable material with 2 to 3 feet of fine-grained material. Thoroughly compact this material. In cavernous limestone areas, the success or failure of the seal may depend on the thickness and compaction of this initial blanket.

Apply the dispersing agent uniformly over the pond area at a rate determined by laboratory analysis. It can be applied with a seeder, drill, fertilizer spreader, or by hand broadcasting. The dispersant should be finely granular, with at least 95 percent passing a No. 30 sieve and less than 5 percent passing a No. 100 sieve.

Thoroughly mix the dispersing agent into each 6-inch layer to be treated. You can use a disk, rototiller, pulverizer, or similar equipment. Operating the mixing equipment in two directions produces best results. Thoroughly compact each chemically treated layer with four to six passes of a sheepsfoot roller.

Protect the treated blanket against puncturing by livestock. Cover the area near the high-water line with a 12- to 18-inch blanket of gravel or other suitable material to protect it against erosion. Use riprap or other suitable material in areas where inflow into the pond is concentrated.

Waterproof linings

Using waterproof linings is another method of reducing excessive seepage in both coarse-grained and fine- grained soils. Polyethylene, vinyl, butyl-rubber membranes, and asphalt-sealed fabric liners are gaining wide acceptance as linings for ponds because they virtually eliminate seepage if properly installed.

Thin films of these materials are structurally weak, but if not broken or punctured they are almost completely watertight. Black polyethylene films are less expensive and have better aging properties than vinyl. Vinyl, on the other hand, is more resistant to impact damage and is readily seamed and patched with a solvent cement. Polyethylene can be joined or patched with a special cement.

All plastic membranes should have a cover of earth or earth and gravel not less than 6 inches thick to protect against punctures. Butyl-rubber membranes need not be covered except in areas traveled by livestock. In these areas a minimum 9-inch cover should be used on all types of flexible membranes. The bottom 3 inches of cover should be no coarser than silty sand.

Clear the pond area of all undesired vegetation. Fill all holes and remove roots, sharp stones, or other objects that might puncture the film. If the material is stony or of very coarse texture, cover it with a cushion layer of fine-textured material before placing the lining.

Some plants may penetrate both vinyl and polyethylene film. If nutgrass, johnsongrass, quackgrass, and other plants having high penetration are present, the subgrade, especially the side slopes, should be sterilized. Several good chemical sterilizers are available commercially. Sterilization is not required for covered butyl-rubber linings 20 to 30 mils thick.

Lay the linings in sections or strips, allowing a 6-inch overlap for seaming. Vinyl and butyl-rubber linings should be smooth, but slack. Polyethylene should have up to 10 percent slack. Be extremely careful to avoid punctures. Anchor the top of the lining by burying it in a trench dug completely around the pond at or above the normal water level. The anchor trench should be 8 to 10 inches deep and about 12 inches wide.