10 Things to Consider Before Building a Pond (Pond Regulations)

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Things to Consider Before Building a Pond (Backyard Pond Regulations)

Backyard pond
There are many things to consider before building a pond and some basic knowledge about freshwater life is required. devra / CC BY 2.0

As an artificially constructed body of water, a backyard pond can significantly alter the landscape and biologically impact its surrounding ecosystem. A properly built pond respects the needs and sensitivities of proximal life. It should greatly benefit the community instead of causing a harmful disturbance. It shouldn’t be a misplaced eyesore either. Rather, it should enhance the quality of life of everything around it.

The full list of considerations prior to building a pond takes into account not only the aesthetic and functional requirements of an effective waterbody, but also its legal and cost-related burdens. Although freshwater ponds are extremely vital to conservation, often serving as sources of hydration in wildlife corridors, they can’t simply be placed anywhere, be of any size, or take water from any source.

Pond owners must have at least basic knowledge about freshwater life to understand the implications of pond placement. This should aid in creating a nuanced selection of pond parameters while finalizing your design. Take note that well-built ponds can significantly increase land value, even in small properties. Careful planning is key to creating visually appealing and easily manageable outdoor water features.

1) Legal permits

Pond in backyard
Even the simplest constructions, like a small backyard pond, require a legal permit! Les Orchard / CC BY 2.0

The types of permits that are required for building a pond greatly vary. These can be determined by your geographical location, any conservation-related restrictions in your area, the size and depth of your pond, and its purpose for being built. Though you do have the right to determine pond specifications in your personal backyard, a notice for its construction is usually required. Depending on where you live, this would normally be lodged with a local government unit. See sample requirements (for NY state) here.

Though they may be troublesome and lead to a seemingly unnecessary amount of paperwork, legal permits are necessary for something as simple as a small backyard pond. The construction and/or modification of ponds can impact ecologically sensitive zones. Localities with watershed restoration activities may be particularly strict about pond construction and place heavy restrictions on design and water sourcing aspects.

In private properties, one might feel the desire to avoid sending out notices or to hide pond construction activities. This is unadvisable as subsequent repairs or consultation with experts may draw attention to an illegally constructed pond. Additional permits for a well or reservoir for emergency water storage are also required as these structures may tap into groundwater and be sources of contamination. Keep in mind that permits are there for many reasons; they should aid in maintaining the quality of water in your area whilst ensuring that wildlife has a measure of protection.

2) Natural water sources and possible contaminants

Rainwater collection
Some pond owners keep tanks of clean water in case of shortages. tajai / CC BY 2.0

Clean water is the most important component of a backyard pond. Water can’t simply be sourced from anywhere as it may contain pollutants or substances that would be detrimental to pond life. The best water sources are usually natural, free-flowing, stable all year round, free from effluents, untouched by sewage, and situated close to your property.

The main sources of clean water in a pond usually include one or a combination of the following: groundwater, surface runoff, rainwater, spring water, well water, and inflows. The type of pond may determine which source is best. Ornamental ponds may receive water from these sources, though additional filtration may be required to ensure that it is crystal clear and pathogen-free. Wildlife ponds tend to be more resilient and are made to withstand inputs from several sources of water. Stormwater and surface runoff tend to collect in them, but their heavily planted profiles aid in reducing excess nutrients.

An important thing to keep in mind with water sources is they may not be available throughout the year. Seasonal fluctuations of the water table may require the use of pumps or may bring about the need for alternative water sources. This is why some pond owners may opt to dig their own wells or have a tank of clean water on standby just in case there are shortages. Periodically checking your water source for contaminants and pathogens is highly recommended.

3) Water usage

Pond liner
Many pond owners fully line their ponds to prevent water seepage. Koi Acres, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The volume of water required and used up by a pond is affected by its size, its substrate quality or lining, its inhabitants, and ambient temperature conditions. If the soil along the walls and floor of the pond is slightly porous, a fair portion of pond water may be lost as seepage. This is why many pond owners opt to fully line their ponds. For wildlife ponds in porous areas, compact soil may need to be introduced into the dugout to prevent too much seepage.

Where you locate your pond can influence how much water is lost each summer due to evaporation. The lost water will constantly have to be replenished to prevent marked increases in nutrient concentrations. It may be a good idea to locate the pond in an area receiving partial shade as this would slow down evaporation. Establishing a current to help keep the water aerated and cool should also help.

Pond maintenance, which involves regular water replacements, would undoubtedly use up some water as well. As it is a limited resource, water should only be disposed of and replaced when needed. It pays to conduct considerable water changes frequently, but this should most definitely not be done more than a few times per month. Note that you may need to invest in adequate filters to extend the viability of your pond water.

4) Proper disposal of pond water

Pond water
“Old” pond water can be used as a natural fertilizer for garden plants. Nikolaj Potanin from Russia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Whenever pond water is changed, you will have nutrient-rich water to dispose of or reuse correctly. Some pond owners use this “old” pond water as a natural fertilizer for their garden plants, which will likely benefit from its nitrates and phosphates. The pond water may also contain beneficial microbes that rival the contents of store-bought biofertilizers.

While it may be acceptable to empty out the contents of a pond into your own garden, it should not be disposed of in public areas or in parts of your property that are close to shared canals, lead to natural bodies of water, or along sites receiving stormwater. Note that pathogens and seeds or fragments of invasive pond plants may be carried by the water. If these find their way into fragile ecosystems, they can disrupt the balance.

Before building the pond, try to assess how you would dispose of or recycle the nutrient-rich pond water. If your garden is unable to take large loads of water, it may be handy to keep a drum or large tank nearby. This should also encourage you to reconsider the volume or size of your pond.

5) Location

Garden pond
When choosing a location for your pond, it’s important to take into consideration soil type, amount of sunlight & shade, access to water, and more. theloneconspirator / CC BY 2.0

Location can significantly influence the quality of your pond water, how often you’ll need to maintain your pond, the types of plants that will grow in its waters, and the health of its inhabitants. When located in a prime spot, a pond can easily receive clean groundwater, have ideal temperature and light levels, stay clear of potentially toxic stormwater or runoff, and be much cheaper to pump water into.

In the wrong location, a pond can become a receptacle for dirty water, have plants that struggle to survive in full shade, and remain turbid due to an increasingly mucky substrate. Location is worth almost everything when it comes to ponds, just as it can affect the health of plants or the physical integrity of a home.

Each location comes with its own challenges, so it’s important to choose one that can save you money and time in the long run. Of course, it should also highlight the natural beauty of the pond and provide you with ample space to move around it, install pondside seating, or comfortably cultivate border plants. Listed below are some questions you should be asking yourself while selecting a location for your pond.

  • Will the pond receive easy and reliable access to water and power from this location?
  • Are there tall trees with branches that may hang over the pond, eventually dropping large amounts of leaves onto the pond’s surface?
  • Is this spot visible from a window in my house? Will I be able to visually inspect the pond from a distance?
  • Can wild animals and pets sneak into this location?
  • Will the pond receive ample sun exposure in this location?
  • Would rainwater or runoff stream into this location and possibly enter the pond?
  • Is the location flat?
  • What type of soil dominates this location?

6) Pond safety

Cat next to pond
You may want to build a barrier around your pond to keep wild animals and pets out. Peter Huys / CC BY-SA 2.0

Before building a pond, you will need to consider the physical and biological risks associated with having an exposed body of water. If you have pets and children, a large and deep pond can be dangerous, especially if its perimeter is not reinforced with a densely planted border or tall and secure barrier. Fencing, netting, or a domed cover can help prevent accidents, but note that these can alter the overall appearance of the pond. Larger ponds will inevitably be more costly to childproof.

Pond-related accidents can befall adults as well. If the pond edge is slippery, sloped, jagged, or built with wobbly stones, it may not be safe to stand or walk close to the water. When you create your pond design, designate specific areas from which you can undertake regular maintenance-related activities on each side of the pond. You should be able to securely stand or sit in these areas, so the ground should be fully stabilized.

Another concern for outdoor ponds is their potential to become breeding grounds for waterborne diseases. Stagnant ponds may also drastically increase your pest populations, making room for these disease vectors to fester and breed. Be prepared to add pond pumps to prevent water stagnation. Barriers to keep wild animals and pets out may also help keep the water disease-free as many transmissible diseases may be introduced by visiting wildlife.

7) Cost efficiency

Koi pond
Fully stocked ponds with valuable fish can be very expensive to maintain and often requires a lot of manpower for general pond upkeep. Bernard Spragg. NZ / No copyright

Backyard ponds can go from moderately cheap to extremely costly to build and maintain. A pond can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars to build, and more costs are incurred with every year the pond is operated and maintained. Wildlife ponds are generally the cheapest to build as they would seldom require waterproof equipment or a fully-lined floor to serve their purpose. These can even be made using tools found at home and filled with natural and freely-sourced water.

Ornamental backyard ponds are much more expensive, particularly if more manpower is required for digging and lining the excavation. Medium to large-sized ponds housing high-value fish require reliable machinery for filtration and aeration, a stable power source, and a steady supply of clean water, all of which may be costly to maintain. Moreover, larger or fully stocked ponds will require more manpower for upkeep.

8) Pond purpose and design

Otter in pond
If you wish to attract a variety of wildlife and pollinators to your property, a wildlife pond is the best option! Charlie Marshall / CC BY 2.0

Your purpose for building a pond will largely influence its design, shape, location, depth, size, and the required construction materials. If you’d like to have a pond to naturalize your garden or diversify animals and pollinators on your property, a wildlife pond would be best. If you intend for the pond to be a focal point that draws the attention of guests or highlights the features of fish and aquatic plants, an ornamental pond would be the obvious choice.

Some ponds are specifically constructed for fish cultivation. These types are made to meet the demands of recreational anglers, to produce fish as food, or for research. Others are made to serve as spots for hydration along wildlife corridors between fragmented wetlands or forests. They can also serve as attractions in public parks, theme parks, sports courses, and cultural centers.

It’s helpful to first frame your reasons for planning a pond in the first place prior to visualizing a finished product or hastening toward construction. You may start off by simply wanting a flowing body of water to soften the exteriors of your property. After some research or consultation with experts, you might eventually find that adding fish or welcoming wildlife into its waters can effectively prevent algal growth and insect outbreaks. Whatever the type of pond, know that it will definitely enliven your space.

9) Your local climate

Frozen koi pond
In areas with frosty winters, fish ponds need to be deep enough to sustain life throughout the season. Mark Baylor / CC BY 2.0

Ponds can remain the same all year round in tropical areas, with fish in constant activity and aquatic plants continuously multiplying. In temperate zones with fluctuating seasonal conditions, particularly those with frosty winters, ponds need to be designed with cool temperatures in mind. As shallow water can completely freeze over in winter, fish ponds will need to be quite deep to sustain life through the season.

Similarly, in areas with notably warm temperatures, fish ponds also need some depth to prevent them from rapidly warming and evaporating. Ponds in these areas would benefit from shade, along with in-pond water features such as fountains or waterfalls to keep the water cool and flowing. Note that the appearance of planted ponds can change just as natural attractions do through the seasons.  

10) Access to materials and pond needs

Small pond
If you don’t live close to a pond supply store, it’s a good idea to have backup equipment for any emergencies. puuikibeach / CC BY 2.0

Now that virtually all commodities, including pre-formed ponds and live fish, are available online, it’s possible to receive everything you need for a pond at your very own doorstep. Larger materials or distant supplier locations, however, can result in exorbitantly high packaging and delivery costs, not to mention a potentially lengthy shipping period. Close proximity to nearby pond supply stores, aquascaping specialists, and fish and aquatic plant suppliers can make a world of difference. This should help you address pond-related problems and emergencies in a timely and more cost-efficient manner.

If you’re located far away from any nearby aquascaping store, you may need to stock up on emergency supplies, such as backup generators, fish medication, isolation tanks, backup filters, and extra pond pumps. These will definitely come in handy in case the necessary materials cannot be delivered in due time. Without these supplies, you run the risk of irreversible damage to your pond ecosystem.

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