Our lives have changed due to COVID-19, both at home and at work. It appears that many of us working from home grew weary of our home office space, and the views outside our windows, and decided some sprucing up was needed. For quite a few people, staring at the wet depression in the yard or an eroding slope triggered a call or email to our office.
Since mid-March, we have experienced a marked increase in calls for assistance, some of which were related to ponds. Ponds offer wildlife habitat, swimming, fishing, and boating opportunities as well as beautification. Ponds are complex, as well as a financial investment, so we encourage you to do your research beforehand. Here are some examples to illustrate why this is critical.
First, a little background. Delaware County is full of poorly drained but highly productive soils. Historically, farmers have installed tile drainage to improve the soil conditions for growing corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa, and other crops. Such tile could be as simple as a single line to drain a low area, to a complex system of parallel lines every 50 feet throughout an entire farm field. As land use changes from agricultural to residential or commercial, construction can crush or cut those tile lines, some of which are so old they are made of clay. Ignore those lines at your peril!
One recent caller insisted the neighbor’s pond was causing him drainage problems. Typically, ponds are built in this county by constructing a dam across a drainage swale or are a combination of excavation and embankment. The dam has a pipe in it, referred to as the principal spillway, which maintains the water level. The water that previously flowed through the swale is held behind the dam and slowly released through the pipe when the water level rises above normal pool.
The same amount of water is flowing through the drainage swale into the pond and then out again. A pond doesn’t create more water. With proper installation, a pond should not cause a water problem for a downstream property. However, if one of those drainage tiles that I mentioned earlier was cut during pond construction and not addressed, it could impact adjoining properties. When tile is discovered during pond construction, the appropriate action is to route the tile back to the swale, downstream of the dam. Similar to the saying, “good fences make good neighbors,” functioning tile drainage also keeps friendly relationships amongst neighbors. Oftentimes, tile lines are visible through aerial photos so we recommend checking the Delaware County Auditor’s website before beginning your pond design process. Our office has a selection of old aerial photos that may help as well.
Our second example is an allegation that the neighbor’s pond, located downstream, was backing up water onto the caller’s land. Again, investigating what tile may already be on the site is important and can help you avoid negative relationships with your neighbors. Unfortunately, we have seen people cut through existing tile and use the “out of sight, out of mind” approach. They cover it with soil or worse yet, fill the tile with concrete, and go on with life. This is a guarantee to create a hostile relationship with any neighbor who is affected. While Ohio laws governing water rights and drainage are complicated and have evolved out of case law, generally a landowner is required to accept the water that flows onto his/her property, as long as no additional water from another watershed has been added.
Our third site visit was with a landowner whose neighbor suggested that they invest in one larger pond to share, rather than a smaller pond on each of their respective properties. This is possible and can be mutually beneficial; however, both parties should be clear about their expectations and responsibilities. How are decisions going to be made about when to mow (or not mow)? Are both parties comfortable with biological, chemical, and/or physical control of weeds and critters such as snapping turtles, Canada geese, and muskrats, in and around the pond? What fish are desirable for stocking? Who is permitted to fish and how many fish can be harvested? Ponds are not maintenance free so how are maintenance costs going to be covered? How will you settle disagreements? What happens when one family sells and moves? A consultation with an attorney may help determine the who, what, where, when, why, and how of sharing a pond.
The Delaware Soil and Water Conservation District has several pond publications on its website under Resources. A properly constructed, maintained, and managed pond can be an asset to your property, keep you in good graces with your neighbors, and offer many years of enjoyment for you and your family. You can reach us at 740-368-1921 or through the “Contact Us” link on our website. You can also follow us on Facebook.
Bonnie Dailey is deputy director of the Delaware Soil & Water Conservation District. For information, go to https://soilandwater.co.delaware.oh.us/.