Waterscape Design and Pond Construction in the Desert

Published on October 29, 2021

An initial SketchUp mesh drawing (top) shows water levels and pond shapes. My concept for the stream sections (bottom) is shown with sump areas, pre-filters and pumps.

Just over two years ago, a former client contacted me about a new pond construction and design project. I had designed a 20,000-gallon pond for him and his wife about 10 years prior, and I figured he was calling about a pond issue. To my surprise, he had a new project coming up and asked if I wanted to be involved.  

Randal Jones is a construction defect attorney, trial lawyer and, along with his friend Joel Laub, a developer. They had purchased a locally historic property called Bonnie Springs in the Red Rock Mountains just outside Las Vegas, Nevada. 

Welcome to Canyon Springs

If you have ever visited Las Vegas, you can’t miss this spectacular backdrop to the Neon City. With its petting zoo and restaurant, the area previously known as Bonnie Springs was always a favorite spot for my family, both when I was a child and when I had my own children. Over the years, a western town was added with a small-scale train ride and fake “Old West” gunfights, saloon, barbecue, post office, country store and more. Later they added the Zombie Bus Ride, where you could ride along and shoot paintball guns out the windows at zombies attacking the bus. 

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After several decades, and as the owners got older, the property came into disrepair and eventually closed. It was placed on the market, and local developers competed to purchase the prime acreage surrounded by the National Red Rock Conservation Area. The local community was very concerned about the future of the development. Would it still be accessible to the public? Would the fragile area become overdeveloped commercially or residentially, thus disrupting the natural surrounding beauty of the area? 

Over the years, the Red Rock Conservation Area has become one of the top 10 rock-climbing destinations in the country as well as a highly traveled bike run for cyclists. Randal and Joel were finally allowed to purchase the property, and it couldn’t have gone to a better pair, in my opinion. Their vision was to create a half-public, half-private space with only 19 large residential lots. The name of the development was changed to Canyon Springs.

The public space will have a restaurant with casual dining during the day and fine dining in the evenings. A small boutique hotel with no gambling will be available for events, along with an event barn for public use. A small amphitheater dug into the ground with the mountains as the backdrop will be added for music and theatre events. The entire project will look as though it had been there for decades, with strict architectural guidelines and as much natural landscape as possible to make it look like it truly belongs there. 

What a beautiful backdrop for a new development!

The goal for Joel and Randal was to create a premier development in the Las Vegas area. My part is to design the restaurant pond, the meadow pond across from the event barn and the mill pond on the private side. I will make the original stream bed (or arroyo, as we call it in the desert) flow all the time, instead of just when it rains. For me, it means creating a 1 1/2-mil.-gal. pond system and a ¼-mile stream that looks as natural as possible and functions with the kind of water quality I’m used to in a koi pond. 

Buyer Beware

After all, Las Vegas is home to many large poorly functioning, man-made lakes and water features, and I have been asked to assess (and repair) my fair share of them over the past few years. The biggest issue with a post-construction assessment a few years down the road is the fact that the money has already been spent by the developer during construction, and repairing or upgrading something is never a quick fix. The money typically just isn’t available for a proper reconstruction. I have been flown all over the country to assess large pond issues with largely the same results. I don’t fault the architects in this regard. An architect’s job is the vision, and it is rare to find an architect who understands the ins and outs of live water-quality management. 

My concept for the stream sections is shown with sump areas, pre-filters and pumps.

These projects usually go out to bid as design-build without technical specs or drawings for the functional aspects of the system. A performance bond isn’t required, because there usually isn’t anyone involved with the project’s development who understands the issues. The city or county where the project is to be built often has little knowledge of what to expect. 

Enter the world of the “Wild West” of construction with no codes, specs or rules for construction, other than those related to structural and safety. Those of you out there who build large water features of high quality know exactly what I’m talking about. 

A Deal With Mother Nature

My article “Living on the Edge” from POND Trade magazine’s September/October 2019 issue was about edge treatments, and it was this project that allowed me to create a natural-looking polymer-edge treatment. With COVID-19 and the country almost shut down, the project was delayed but has now started up again. 

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For this project, I am determined to design a system that has the best chance of striking a deal with Mother Nature. I want to use the least amount of energy in the most efficient way possible to get aeration and circulation through filtration properly with a maintenance regime as manageable as possible, given the size of the project. To achieve this, every possible use of equipment and technology will be utilized. 

The system will start with an upper retention pond that flows down to the mill pond ¼ mile away. From this point, the water will flow under a bridge and down a waterfall to the meadow pond before it exits to another shorter section of stream and eventually ends up at the lower restaurant pond. The system will be completely recirculating, but not necessarily bottom to top. Each pond will be operated using air lifts, with the stream sections and waterfalls operated by pond pumps.

Pumps & Circulation

The team stockpiles boulders as the dig continues.

The most efficient pond pumps on the market lose efficiency with increased head. A maximum of 8 feet of head is a safe number to deal with, in my opinion. I designed the stream in sections from 120 feet to 250 feet determined by the drop in head height, with each section having a drop of no more than 8 feet. At each 8-foot point, a deep section of the stream will be created. For the most part, this deep section will create a hardly noticeable small pond area containing two 4-inch bottom drains and an in-pond skimmer. The drains and skimmer will flow to a 275-gallon radial separator, where the pump will send the water back to the top of the section. Each subsequent section will operate in the same manner, sending water back up to the previous section’s sump area. When connected, it will appear to be a seamless stream flow all the way down to the mill pond. This makes the stream efficient and cleanable from the prefilters, and if any one section requires maintenance, it can be shut down separately from the others with no interruption. A small amount of flow through from the well tank will constantly be in use to offset the system’s evaporation, but the system stays filled from bottom to top. 

Water from the mill pond is pumped up to the top of the last stream section and flows back down. The sump and pump in the top of that section sends water upward to the section above it. Once each section is filled, the excess water not needed for the section above it returns and creates the illusion of a continuous stream. If any one section has a problem or is shut down, the rest of the system can operate independently with no interruption because of the constant small amount of flow from the top. 

A scraper creates the Meadow Event Pond around what will be an island.

I experimented with several pumps and decided to use the Oase Aquarius ECO expert 11500 at 700 watts. This pump is extremely efficient and wifi controllable. Frayne McAtee with Oase-Atlantic Water Gardens was very helpful with working out the details of my pumping requirements. With this pump, the system can be slowed down at night, and the maintenance crew can look at the performance of each pump in real time. At this point, the pumps for the stream sections and waterfalls is at a count of about 17, so ease of management is going to be critical. 

Looking Ahead

The stream system was the first to be designed, but construction will start with the meadow and mill ponds, because they are in the center of the development. The air pumps for the ponds will be in the mill house opposite the guard gate for the mill pond and inside a boat house for the meadow pond. Excavation began with heavy equipment with tons of boulders being stockpiled for later use. 

Shown above is one of the original concept drawings for the public space of the development.

My initial drawings for the ponds are in 3-D Sketchup, which was a bit of a challenge. Google Earth is way behind, so even though the property has been completely scraped, it still shows all the buildings intact. The initial excavation of the ponds isn’t available for download, either. 

I called one of my son’s friends, Jonathan Kosh, a global positioning system (GPS) programmer who has other high-tech computer talents. I knew he had a pretty amazing drone, and after I explained what my needs were, he offered to fly over the excavation. He was a wizard, and after stitching the photos together, he was able to create a photographic mesh that could be inserted into a Sketchup file. From this, I was able to draw with accurate elevations in the same way as if I had downloaded a current Google Earth model. He started his own company called Skyward Solutions LLC just for these types of situations. 

I’m excited about the possibilities as progress is made on this ever-changing project. Stay tuned for future articles about the function of the ponds and filtration as the development moves forward. 

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