Building the excavated pond

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.

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

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.

Establishing vegetation

Trees, shrubs, grasses, and forbs should be planted during or soon after construction. Their functions include erosion control, screening, space definition, climate control, and wildlife habitat. The vegetation should be able to survive under prevailing conditions with minimum maintenance. Native varieties are preferred for new plantings.

In many areas the exposed surface of the dam, the auxiliary spillway, and the borrow areas as well as other disturbed surfaces can be protected from erosion by establishing a vegetative community of appropriate species. Prepare a seedbed as soon after con- struction as practicable. This is generally done by disking or harrowing. Fertilize and seed with mixtures of perennial grasses and forbs appropriate for local soil and climatic conditions. If construction is completed when the soils are too dry for the seeds to germinate, irrigate the soils to ensure prompt germina- tion and continued growth. Mulching with a thin layer of straw, fodder, old hay, asphalt, or one of several commercially manufactured materials may be desirable. Mulching not only protects the newly prepared seedbed, seeds, or small plants from rainfall damage, but also conserves moisture and provides conditions favorable for germination and growth.

Soil bioengineering systems should be employed to establish woody vegetation where appropriate on the shorelines of ponds. The systems best suited to these conditions include live stakes, live fascines, brushmattresses, live siltation, and reed clumps. Additional information about these and other soil bioengineering systems is in Part 650, Engineering Field Handbook, chapters 16 and 18.

Trees and shrubs that remain or those planted along the shoreline will be subject to flooding, wave action, or a high water table. The ability to tolerate such drastic changes varies greatly among species. Flood tolerance and resistance to wave action depend on root density and the ability to regenerate from exposed roots.

A planting plan indicating the species and rate of application of the vegetation can be helpful in achieving the desired results. For information on recom- mended plants and grass mixtures, rates of fertilization, and mulching procedures, contact the local representatives of the Natural Resources Conservation Service or the county agent.

Protecting the pond

Construction of the pond is not complete until you have provided protection against erosion, wave action, trampling by livestock, and any other source of damage. Ponds without this protection may be short lived, and the cost of maintenance is usually high.

Leave borrow pits in condition to be planted so that the land can be used for grazing or some other purpose. Grade and shape the banks or side slopes of borrow pits to a slope that permits easy mowing, preferably no steeper than 4:1, and allows the graded area to blend with the landscape. It is often desirable to establish vegetation to make the borrow area compatible with undisturbed surroundings.

Grade all areas or pits from which borrow material has been obtained so they are well drained and do not permit stagnant water to accumulate as breeding places for mosquitoes.

Wave action

Several methods are available to protect the upstream face of a dam against wave action. The choice of method depends on whether the normal pool level remains fairly constant or fluctuates. An irrigation pond is an example of the latter. In these ponds, water is withdrawn periodically during the growing season and the water level may fluctuate from normal pool level to near pond bottom one or more times each year. The degree of protection required also influences the choice of method.

Berms—If the water level in the pond is expected to remain fairly constant, a berm 6 to 10 feet wide lo- cated at normal pool level generally provides adequate protection against wave action. The berm should have a downward slope of about 6 to 12 inches toward the pond. The slope above the berm should be protected by vegetation.

Booms—Log booms also break up wave action. A boom consists of a single or double line of logs chained or cabled together and anchored to each end of the dam. Tie the logs end to end as close together as practicable. Leave enough slack in the line to allow the boom to adjust to fluctuating water levels. If you use double rows of logs, frame them together to act as a unit. For best results place the boom so that it floats about 6 feet upstream from the face of the dam. If the dam is built on a curve, you may need anchor posts on the face of the dam as well as at the ends to keep the boom from riding on the slope. Booms do not give as much protection as some other methods described, but they are inexpensive if timber is readily available. They generally are satisfactory for small structures.

Riprap—Rock riprap is an effective method of control if a high degree of protection is required or if the water level fluctuates widely. Riprap should extend from the top of the dam down the upstream face to a level at least 3 feet below the lowest anticipated water level. Riprap is dumped directly from trucks or other ve- hicles or is placed by hand. Hand placing gives more effective protection and requires less stone. Dumping requires more stone, but less labor. The layer of stones should be at least 12 inches thick and must be placed on a bed of gravel or crushed stone at least 10 inches thick. This bed keeps the waves from washing out the underlying embankment material that supports the riprap.

If riprap is not continuous to the upstream toe, provide a berm on the upstream face to support the layer of riprap and to keep it from sliding downslope. If pos- sible, use stones whose color is similar to that in the immediate area. Allow grass and herbs to grow through the riprap to blend with surrounding vegeta- tion, but control woody vegetation.


Complete fencing of areas on which embankment ponds are built is recommended if livestock are grazed or fed in adjacent fields. Fencing provides the protec- tion needed to develop and maintain a good plant cover on the dam, the auxiliary spillway, and in other areas. It enhances clean drinking water and eliminates damage or pollution by livestock. If you fence the entire area around the pond and use the pond for watering livestock, install a gravity-fed watering trough just downstream from the dam and outside the fenced area.

Fencing also enables you to establish an environment beneficial to wildlife. The marshy vegetation needed around ponds for satisfactory wildlife food and cover does not tolerate much trampling or grazing.

Not all ponds used for watering livestock need to be fenced. On some western and midwestern ranges, the advantages derived from fencing are more than offset by the increased cost and maintenance and the fact that fewer animals can water at one time. A rancher with many widely scattered ponds and extensive holdings must have simple installations that require minimum upkeep and inspection. Fencing critical parts of livestock watering ponds, particularly the earthfill and the auxiliary spillway, is usually advantageous even if complete fencing is impractical.


Building the Pond

Ponds-Planning, Design and Construction, Agricultural Handbook Number 590 by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)

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