How to Build a Natural Stream Pond

Tim Matson provides a guide to building a natural stream pond for your property, including pond advice and building diagrams.

| March/April 1986

A pond adds both beauty and value to a country home. Here's a way to create a stream pond without resorting to expensive and soil-damaging heavy equipment.  (See diagrams of how to build a stream pond in the image gallery).

A Stream Pond That Carves [and Cleans] Itself

One summer I swam in a stream pond in the second curve of an oxbow in Abbott Brook. The flow had chiseled into the bank, sweeping out a 20-foot bowl, then doubled back where the roots of a poplar grove held the bank together. Rebounding sediment had settled into a sandy beach on the shallow bank. You could swim all day against the current and never get anywhere.

This stretch of brook with its whirly-pit was one of the brightest lures when the surrounding land was deeded to a young family from California. Lee Ann and Mike turned salvage from an old carriage house into a post-and-beam saltbox near the bank and counted on the pond for household water and summer baths. One summer afternoon, with some help from their daughter Heather, they laid up a stone dam to deepen the basin to six feet. They chopped down a poplar to bridge the brook — great for hanging by the knees in the free current. But with autumn rains came a tide of silt that filled the little pond, and ice and spring snowmelt crumpled the dam.

Just south, Dave and Victoria built a silo house out of dismantled Army barracks trucked from Michigan. It was a memorial to thrift and sixties sentiment. Really monumental were their cellar sauna and front-yard pond. The sauna was a real beauty. Clear cedar boards lined the interior, and two racks of slatted benches crisscrossed the room. A mail-order sheet-metal stove burned with cheery red cheeks near a knee-high window that peered over a rocky brook. During tower construction David and Tor had let the brook run loose. With the house together, they looked around and decided to make a pond. They built a stone dam and shoveled silt out of the basin. The dam was laid up loose enough to pass the flow and contain a pool. It filled deep enough to inspire David, after a midnight sauna, to climb the ladder to his tower roof and leap for the dark pond below. But spring came with runoff that punched out the dam and swept in a load of silt — a nuisance for the rest of us and potentially fatal for David.

So a ritual grew in the summer. Neighbors gathered at different stream ponds for dam repair and silt shoveling. Given a good blend of hot sun and cold beer it was OK, until you got your toe crunched. I began to ponder a better solution. I found it in a 15-year-old illustrated bulletin published by the New York State Conservation Department. "The stream pond," I read, "must lie below the dam." It's simply geology: Pools form naturally in the wake of a waterfall.

"Log pyramid pool digger" is the title the conservationists tagged their pond-making method, and it wasn't long before I saw how smoothly it worked. With my neighbors, Blake and Aletta, who live on the brink of Podunk Brook, I raised a barrier of logs and stones across the water, triggering a waterfall that carved out a pond. Now it flows like a self-propelled excavator and even sweeps itself clean every spring — a sorcerer's impoundment. We just call it the digger pond.

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