Koi in the Balance

Maintaining one of Chicago’s largest koi habitats

Two automatic feeders go off four times a day each. One has 7mm Kenzen, the other 4mm Kenzen. The koi stage in this area, waiting for food.

Two 700-gallon tanks (above) filtered with DIY trickle towers are the heart of the quarantine barn. The 32-inch monitor is a necessity to monitor the three underwater cameras!

I got a call in 2009 from a pond caretaker who asked me about my aquatic veterinarian. He said his employer was looking for someone to help his fish. It seemed that they had a parasite infestation during the summer, and now that November had arrived, a bunch of koi had already died.

That was my introduction to Dan Webb’s gigantic koi habitat. I diagnosed the problem by having histopathology done on several koi at the

University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine. The results came back that these koi were dying from chlamydia, most likely from a dirty habitat. A history would reveal that Dan’s 25,000-gallon gravel-bottom pond had never been cleaned properly. I was asked to remain on staff to clear the problems and take care of Dan’s koi.

If you live in Chicago you are aware that Dan Webb was once our United States Attorney for Illinois. I remember when, back in the 1980s, he gained notoriety in Operation Greylord by prosecuting corrupt judges, lawyers, deputy sheriffs, policemen and court officials.

An Unexpected Passion

Dan started his interest in ponds when he bought a property in the late 1990s. It had a retention/detention pond in the front yard that collected rain runoff from 2,000 acres to the north. He tried to make something nice with plants and fish, but realized early on it would never work because a significant rain would destroy everything. This was a very bad place to put his pond; but it was the place he liked, so he figured out a way.

Making it Work

What if there was a 24-inch drain pipe installed beneath the pond using a bore machine? It would isolate the site, redirect the swale and permit a reinforced gunite shell to be installed. This was done as a first step in early 2000. An underliner dewatering system was installed with a rock and gravel pond on top of it. The final touch: programmable bead filters and UV sterilizers.

The system worked for the longest time, but by 2009 it was old and the UVs had caught fire a couple of times. Things needed to be done to this 100 by 35 by 5-foot (at the deepest) pond with 2,500 square feet of surface area to turn it into a suitable koi habitat.

Deep Clean and Filters

Two automatic feeders (top) go off four times a day each. One has 7mm Kenzen, the other 4mm Kenzen. The koi stage in this area, waiting for food

Two automatic feeders go off four times a day each. One has 7mm Kenzen, the other 4mm Kenzen. The koi stage in this area, waiting for food.

My first full season on staff was 2010. I started by having the site pond contactor clean the pond. I took out all the koi and held them in portable vats until the job was completed. Much to my dismay, the site pond contractor only power washed and did not thoroughly clean the gravel bottom. They did remove some bottom gravel, but not enough to make a difference. I needed a clean place to keep these koi, so I decided to use bleach and Pool Shock on the gravel bottom before I filled it back up. Once I filled it again, I put more bleach in the water and let it sit for 48 hours. The chlorine count was five times what is needed to kill bacteria, and then I added sodium thiosulfate to neutralize the chlorine and put the koi back in.

As the 2010 season progressed, we upgraded the filter system. Koi Acres’ Mike Swanson retrofitted a hybrid RDF system (power in/power out) that filters down to 70 microns. The RDF feeds two nine-cubic-foot bead filters; two five-foot-long, 300-watt UVs; and a Nexus bioreactor at the north end. Another circuit was added to the south end with another nine-cubic-foot bead filter and a Clarity Unit to degas water and remove dissolved organics/solids. The south circuit also has a 500,000-BTU gas heater that permits me to feed the koi year-round. Each circuit runs at about 20,000 gallons per hour, which turns the pond over once an hour. A three-camera system feeds a monitor in the barn that holds the quarantine facility. These underwater cameras are our only means of easily observing fish under a layer of insulation all winter.

Dr. Vivian Grant, D.V.M., did a sensitivity test on this 5-kilogram Showa. Results came back indicating that we needed both Baytril and Amikacin for this infection.

Dr. Vivian Grant, D.V.M., did a sensitivity test on this 5-kilogram Showa. Results came back indicating that we needed both Baytril and Amikacin for this infection.

The 2011 season started with Koi Acres’ Mike Swanson removing all the rock and gravel in the bottom of the pond. This was the last time I would have to pump out all the water and remove the fish. Koi Acres figured there were 150 tons of material. All of it stayed onsite, built into a walkway over 100 feet long, three feet wide and eight inches deep. It smelled funky for weeks until it completely dried out.

In the meantime, I proved my point by having the water tested for pseudomonas bacteria. I found 5 CFU (colony forming units) per 100 ml of pond water, and 25 CFU per 100 ml of water from the gravel. Clearly, this upgrade was necessary to make a habitat suitable for well-bred Japanese koi. We gained another 15,000 gallons of water for a total of 40,000 gallons.

Rocks and Plants

The rock work around the pond was small and very plain. There were hardly any plants in or around the pond. I needed some big rock, some way to hide the old skimmers,

The wing dam in the background prevents a surge of storm water from overpowering the 24-inch drain and flooding the habitat.

The wing dam in the background prevents a surge of storm water from overpowering the 24-inch drain and flooding the habitat.

and 200 feet of perennials with color and texture. We got Larry Carnes from Reflections Water Gardens to do the hardscape work. Larry and Lalo set 50 tons of boulders with a crane in less than a day.

He also came up with the idea to create destinations around the pond. The in-house carpenter built three docks, covering the skimmers, that cantilever well out over the water.

Dan and I decided to use sedums, Irish moss, Scottish moss, forget-me-nots, red yarrow, dwarf pink roses and pink and red hibiscus to accent the perimeter of the pond. Every year we winter over what water hyacinths will fit in one greenhouse. The rest we give away to Brookfield Zoo. We have over 20 potted water lilies, both tropical and hardy. Every season I use more annuals for color.

An Impressive Operation

There are no fewer than six out buildings that support the pond and koi: the north filter building, the RDF pit, the south filter and workshop building, two greenhouses and a quarantine barn. Every building is heated and ventilated.

The entire property is backed up with an 80,000-watt generator system that automatically kicks on during a power failure. The in-house electrician, who holds two master’s degrees, has outdoor lighting in the trees, in and around the docks, in the water, on the two bridges and in the surrounding landscape. Everything turns on with one switch. And to top it all off, the brick pavers around the fire pit have two 12-foot butterfly koi swimming in a circle. Their LED eyes light up at night.

Koi Acres’ Mike Swanson built a high-efficiency filter for the north loop. First-stage mechanical filtration for these bead filters is a 70-micron RDF.

Koi Acres’ Mike Swanson built a high-efficiency filter for the north loop. First-stage mechanical filtration for these bead filters is a 70-micron RDF.

Day-to-day operation depends on an in-house crew. It is my responsibility to take care of the koi. We manage algae growth by using Dr. Erik Johnson’s perpetual water change technique. I feed about 100 pounds of Kenzen every month. We quarantine new fish and treat sick fish with the help of Dr. Vivian Grant, D.V.M., from Autumn Green Animal Hospital in Geneva, Illinois. Every year I cull out fish that were hatched in the previous season, and if you help me with the cull, Dan insists that we give away the koi to you! We have around 70 koi in 40,000 gallons, some of which are 95 cm and 12 kilograms.

I’m often asked if Dan has a favorite fish. The answer is yes—but I assure you, he loves them all.

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