The Ponds Work, and Now They Work for Us

A big hole where a pond will be

Good Life Ranch is hilly, to say the least.  We are in the “Knobs” country west of the Appalachians and most of our property consists of the western and southern sides of a ridge and the hollows running up into it from the valley floor.

Gravity does a number on water coming off of a ridge.  Erosion city.  Or country.  Or whatever.  Most of the time nature will figure out a way to slow the water down with deposition, meandering, or vegetation.  Leave it to mankind to create straight lines that allows water to build up speed.  Water coming downhill at speed will take away your topsoil and subsoil really quick.

We have such an eroded spot underneath a powerline cut that runs straight down the ridge and is kept free of vegetation by the utility company.  It needed to be fixed because it has created a 10-foot deep gully that kept getting deeper and straighter with every major rain event. 

In permaculture, often the problem is the solution.

Why not fight water with water?

Our solution was to build a pond and swale system to slow the water down, spread it out, retain it in a couple of ponds, and allow it to slowly infiltrate into the soil.   Much better than having it all running directly into the stream below and taking more and more soil with it.  Eventually it would have taken the fence too.

So I took out the trees that would have interfered with the digging or were near the dam wall for the ponds.  I hate taking out trees, but it had to be done and rest assured, more will be planted elsewhere.  Trees in or near the dam wall would eventually undermine the integrity of the structure as their roots invaded the ponds seeking the water.  My neighbor has a skidsteer and rents himself out for $25/hour so I hired him to actually do the digging.  It only took him a few hours to dig the ponds out and build the dam walls.

Then we put in swales on the downhill side of the ponds.   That is where the water goes when the ponds are full.   A swale is a level ditch, dug on contour, with a mound of uncompacted soil on the downhill side.  That mound of uncompacted soil serves to wick water up to trees and shrubs planted in it and creates a nice place for their roots to to stabilize the system. 

The idea is that the ponds and swales act as a “surge protector.”  They slow the water down, spread it out, and allow it to soak into the ground rather than carrying off all of the soil as it rushes unchecked into the stream below.  The ponds can each hold 10,000 – 15,000 gallons of water each when full, and the swales can hold several thousand more so there is quite a bit of water retention there.

So we got all of that done during late August and early September, the driest period of the year.  Then we had to wait to see if it would work.

Ponds dug and ready for rain

And we waited…

Then we got a couple days of nice rain!

Ponds holding water

And the ponds worked!  They held water.  It may sound silly, but it’s always touch and go until a pond actually fills up.  Some leak, some blow, some never fill.  These did, as you can see.

Now not only do we have surge protection spreading water through the landscape and preventing erosion, we also have water retention.  That allows for all sorts of other possibilities.  The ponds can water livestock, hold fish, provide wildlife habitat, and all manner of other ideas.

Using water to buffer water.

The problem is the solution.

Thanks, permaculture.

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