Designing and building live water features is an
interesting and challenging area of construction.
A few years ago, “Water Garden News”
published a story that included data from the National
Association of Pond Professionals
claiming that approximately 80
percent of the ponds built nationwide
fail within the first year — and 80
percent of those fail within the first
six months! This might be an arguable
number, but I believe it’s close to
the truth. I’ve been in this business for over a decade now,
and I know from my experience (and my accountant) that
80 percent or more of my business is rebuilding poorly
designed, poorly conceived and poorly constructed ponds.
I have spoken with many in the industry who have the same record. The failures span a broad range of
conditions, from leaks and high-maintenance
ponds to poor water quality and sickly fish. High
electrical use is also a recurring theme.
The Wild WestIt is my opinion that many of our industry
failures are due to what I call the “wild west” of
construction practices, with no official codes or
specs that “contractors” must follow. Nationwide,
there are no contractors’ licenses that specifically
address the design and construction of living
water features. While there are licenses for pool
contractors, landscapers and, in some cases, “water
feature” installers, an actual trade test for our
industry does not exist.
There are a few guidelines for lake construction
and some codes that apply to safety concerns
in bodies of water over 18 or 24 inches deep, but
nothing else. The consumers are not represented
by or armed with any set of guidelines that they
can use to keep a pond builder in line, and most
consumers are unaware of the needs of fish and plants over the long term. While there
have been several attempts at starting
organizations with the intent of helping
to teach and guide pond builders across
the nation, most of these have struggled at
best and slowly failed over time at worst.
The “rules” we use are largely anecdotal
and have their roots in the backyard,
“this worked for me” syndrome.
Others are simply the techniques
promoted by various manufacturers over
time to help the pond builders they are
trying to sell to avoid codes and regulations.
Few, if any, of these anecdotal
guidelines truly address the needs of the
plants, the fish or the owners and rarely
take geographical location into consideration.
Manufacturers regularly overstate
the performance of their products
because there is simply no one telling
them they can’t.
I’ve designed and built ponds all over
the country and have never come across
any inspectors or regulating bodies that
are any better-informed than the consumers
they would supposedly protect.
I have also seen several extremely
large ponds or small lakes of more than
a million gallons under construction in
different locations across the country that
were designed and built by very well-known
and respected engineering firms
and contractors. These projects failed
in several ways, but the most important
failures were what I consider “pea soup-green”
water quality, poor circulation
and little or no filtration. In short, they
gave a general first impression of “Yuck,
don’t fall in there.”
The most recent of these is one built
right here in Las Vegas, my hometown.
After a 30-million-dollar park renovation
and a multimillion-gallon pond renovation,
it’s still a disaster. Everything from
the water up is gorgeous, but after only
three months of operation the water
looks like a stagnant sewer.
Sadly, this is a common scenario.
When I was a child we played in this
water body as a natural pond. Over the
years, man-made “upgrades” have been
attempted, and the water quality has
become progressively worse with each
upgrade. At some point you have to
take Mother Nature into consideration.
Mother Nature has a set of rules that we
need to learn. We will never know them
all and we’ll barely understand the ones
we observe. The very best we can hope
for is a draw. We will never beat her, but
whenever we build a pond, we’re challenging
her. We’re drawing a line in the
sand and stating, “Cross this and see
what happens.” That’s when she sends
you a creative landslide which consists of
all the things you didn’t consider.
Do I want an outside group of
“un-know-it-alls” regulating our industry?
No! But I would like our industry
to clean up its act and start putting the
Offering the customer choices
through knowledge is a good start.
Having a good working knowledge of
all the different types of equipment and
styles of construction is a must. Eric
Triplett, “The Pond Digger,” is one
of my closest friends in the industry. I
introduced him to bottom drains and
pre-filtration and, in return, he taught
me loads about the water garden industry,
marketing and branding.
What Kind of Pond?A few years ago Eric developed a new
sales strategy. He gives multiple bids on
each job: a “Water Garden,” a “Hybrid
Pond” and a full “Koi Pond.” The definitions
of each of these distinctions
are arguable depending on who you’re talking to, but the concept works. Eric
lets the customer decide which level of
pond design and construction he wants
by explaining the pros and cons of each
— along with the water quality and
maintenance to be expected. I admire
him because this takes both courage
My typical routine is to bid a koi
pond and work backwards from there
if the customer’s budget isn’t in line
with my concept for their yard. Or, I
try to establish their budget and work
to give them the most within their
limit. Whenever I’m working through
an architect or general contractor, I act
as the customer’s representative. After
all, at the end, when everyone else is
gone from the job, it’s just you and
the owner who are left to deal with the
future of the pond.
This series of articles will be geared
toward helping you understand all the
different construction and design techniques
available as you confront different
circumstances. If you are a “cookie
cutter” pond builder, it’s time to stop!
I’m not here to bash products I don’t
like, but rather to address the pros and
cons of each type so you can make the
best choices in design and construction.
There are several styles of structure
and circulation to consider, with
at least half a dozen ways to pre-filter
heavy solids, many different pump
options (including air-driven systems)
and multiple ways to address bio-filtration
(both aerated and solids-trapping).
There are many good options out there
from dozens of manufacturers and they
all work. Some work better than others
for a given design scenario. Helping
you make those choices is the goal of