The red lines are general property boundaries, tan/yellow lines represent earthworks dams and swales, the blue areas are potential water stopped and held by the Earthworks according to general topography. These are the dams and ponds I’ll be referring to here. The general topography is going downhill from lower right to upper left, and the dams from right to left are upper dam,
and contour pond. The pond just above the contour pond is really just a hole in the ground that doesn’t hold water, and i call it somewhat optimistically the ridge point pond. The very top pond is a potential gully dam , that may never actually be completed since it overlaps the property line and would require a joint cooperation .
Another very nice rain, and fortunately the 2″ prediction didn’t turn into 8″, although at this point it hardly matters, the cold keeps the ground moisture from evaporating, and whatever falls at this point is just adding to the overall totals.
The middle dam has been raised now, and the connecting swale nicely tied in. This will allow any future water that threatens this dam to be automatically diverted over to the contour pond. This pond, which mostly has existed as a dry hole , finally started to fill with excess water from the main gully. My storages are really not totally keeping up with all the water falling, the dry days aren’t dry long enough to do any serious work with the backhoe, and the wet days are starting to defy my attempts at control, but the success of the connecting swale here means the next step is to focus in on the swale that extends beyond the contour pond. That is the next big opportunity in ground water storage and a safety valve to keep the contour pond from overflowing.
One of the lessons I have learned on a very experiential level is the old axiom about how the desert is a flood waiting to happen. When the ground is dry, the sun is hot, and machinery can work easily, it is sometimes difficult to imagine the same area overflowing with water. Thirsty plants in the summertime do not automatically bring floods and chaos to mind.
But that is exactly the situation I find myself in. It is true that I have held back a great deal of erosion. When thinking about the large volumes of water that used to scour out the channel beside the drive there is a great feeling of accomplishment, but also a knowledge of more things that need doing.
Thinking about increased fertility in the gardens, and watching new spaces for gardens open up beside the ponds fills my head with plans for the next growing season. But right now I need to look for places to put all this water that seems to be falling without end., My situation is not one of desperation since the reality of the extra water storage has made everything better overall, but now I find myself somewhat greedy.
Watching a two inch pipe steadily running water instead of flooding erosion is a nice step, but now I find a new drive to harness even that two inch flow of water.
PA Yeoman had lots of ideas about water, but probably the central theme was always “no runoff.” Watching that 2 ” pipe I’m starting to understand. It’s not that I want to hoard all the water in the world, obviously that could never happen anyway. But when that 2 inch pipe leaves the fishpond, it has nutrients that could do wonders for a garden, and i find myself thinking about the next project. Maybe this year I’ll finally get into setting up a garden down by the creek and take that water through a taro patch before I let it go.
Tying in new swales is also a way to harness that runoff, and it points to the idea that no matter how much you plan, a design is always going to evolve. The main idea is to make sure your design is not so hard and fast it gets overwhelmed with unexpected productivity.
I had thought about some sort of a final reed bed to do a filter /harvest of nutrients before the water finally went to the creek. Of course it seemed far in the future at that time but here I am today watching water escape, anticipating more fun.
Some might not call it appropriate technology, but machinery may not be all bad when thinking about sustainability. The real test is the overall increased output over the life of the system.
It is easy to think that a dam will last 1000 years and therefore becomes worth the immense amount of energy it takes to build a good one. Of course who is going to be able to be around to make sure the dam does not become simply another earthwork to be undone by others in the next generation. The reality becomes one of making projects immensely valuable to new generations so they are respected for the prosperity they bring in the future, not just for the single generation that creates them.
Bill used to talk about creating food forests that were later destroyed by new owners who only wanted to raise cattle. Misuse like that can quickly ruin a dam and even invasion by trees with taproots could threaten it’s existence. Almost all dams are going to silt up, so at some point in their history they will need to be cleaned out to remain as water bodies, but this can be a positive productivity, generating fertile land for crops.
To the extent possible, it is good for the dam builder to take responsibility for creating sustainable plantings around and on the dam, and perhaps even guide the next generation of owners in the care and use of the dam for greatest reward. Silt ponds and other installations can aid in keeping dam maintenance an easy process, but there is no crystal ball that can foresee every possible future assault on the dam’s integrity.
For me, my projects are never guaranteed to be perfect. Like most patterns, the pattern of building a dam with swales to control erosion and hydrate the landscape is one that often works exceedingly well, and as time goes on there will be more and more applications of these patterns as they demonstrate their value. This awarenmess in turn starts to act as a protection, insurance against the vagaries of human insanity.
So I’m willing to spend large amounts of money and material and even fossil energy to create these earthworks as another demonstration to help our public expectations of normal use evolve / improve.
If it is normal or expected to have well hydrated, highly productive systems, and the mechanics of the systems are well known, then more and more will be built. If a few don’t survive there will be many more that do. So in a sense everything we do to restore more natural water systems is a gamble, but the odds are good enough that overall they will guarantee success and become a new standard in the mainstream.
That being said, I’m currently struggling with the hydraulics of my second hand backhoe. Struggling is perhaps not the right word, but lately it has not been totally smooth sailing. A lot of the work is simply my own ignorance of machines, and being imprecise with my maintenance.
I would encourage anyone trying to keep a used machine running to know as much as possible before turning the key. New machines may be properly set up with great dealer support, but old machines may have a history of misuse leading to more trouble. Sometimes it requires special skills to repair and then maintain past troubles, but there’s no reason it can’t be done. Just be ready to give the machine a rest now and then when something breaks and follow through on finding the cause and the correct upkeep that keeps it from breaking again (if possible).
My example is the power steering cylinder, and I have installed two new ones that have each failed in turn, which has prompted me to examine the state of the hydraulic fluid in the entire system. It has always seemed a milky color, and a friend told me that was normal, and that the cheapest tractor supply fluid was good enough.
After two new cylinders going bad one after the other in quick succession I finally got the idea that maybe the problem was the machine system, not the cylinder. Dedicating some time to study the issue I’m convinced of the need to change the fluid- all 25 gallons of it, and put in a premium fluid without so much water contamination.
The next step will be to see if the stop leak product I saw advertised is really a good idea or not. In fact, this whole thing has me seriously thinking about devoting a day out of every five to renewing some system or another in preventive maintenance.
I guess I’m sort of doing that already, replacing seals and greasing fittings, but I know there is a lot more about the machine that I’m just praying I won’t have to deal with. The more rational approach would be to accept the fact that sooner or later I’m going to have to learn it anyway, and the proverb of the stitch in time saving nine is as true now as it was in Ben’s day.
Maybe it’s time for an engine oil change too!
Remember, if you’re not having fun, you’ve got the design wrong. I’m still having fun- mostly, so I must be doing some stuff right, and the dam is growing incrementally with each period it is running and not sitting idle waiting for a part. Overall the machine does so much work so quickly, that my only regret is that I can’t afford a bigger, newer machine to do even more work.
I’m currently in the process of adding newer photos to update progressAt the top of the kitchen garden, this new pond is a salvage that I had to repair using plastic welding techniques. I tried to create a clay based pond in this place, but all last year it filled many times and never held water very long, even with lots of clay added to try and seal it. In general, I would never spend money on a Plastic prefabs, but when the price is low and I can repair it, the energy audit becomes much better! I’m also finding that for smaller ponds a liner of some sort is probably going to be the only way to go.
Low Gully Pond
Due to bad weather at the time of creation I was unable to finish building this dam with the rented backhoe,The water actually started to fill the pond from the bottom, and that water came in as a blue green color, but run off filled it most of the way, and that water was heavy with sediment then it took weeks of hand labor to get it the rest of the way to this height.
It overflowed during excessive Spring rain events. but drastically receded during the summer last year because of irrigation water use and being emptied to keep the goldfish pond filled. The dam holds water very well and I’m waiting to see if the summer gets dry enough to bring down the water level so I can move in the backhoe and complete the construction.
I’ve already started to build up the first part of the dam wall, but it’s tough to compact clay right at the water line
In another month, if the water is not down, I will drain it and then finish building the dam. (it’s great to swim in at this level) Once completed I plan to stock it with Koi.
PlanThis is an overview of the half of the property(red boundary). Difference in elevation is about 100′ from lower right to upper left and the two ponds at the bottom of the picture are all in the same gully that runs downhill from right to left. The small pond pictured just above those two
has never really held water yet, but it does show signs of improving it’s water retention. This may change over time with organic matter and better integration of the swale, but that requires completion of the Low Gully Dam.
At the very top of the plan drawing the pond touches a neighbors property and there needs to be some sort of written agreement to establish clear rights and responsibilities regarding it’s construction, use, and maintenance before beginning construction. At present the long connecting swale ends just before the pond location, and if no arrangement is reached that swale will be extended up along the property line to collect more water that would otherwise flow off the property.
This picture was taken at a very low water level, and believe it or not there are
catfish that survived the winter at this water level (only a couple feet deep). This year they are over a foot long!
This “high gully dam” is in it’s second year. It overflowed once,
filled two or three times, but is still filling the “back country”. Dams are meant to hydrate the landscape, and the process generally takes about seven years. Currently this dam is the focus of most backhoe energy, while it may not be obvious in the picture, the dam has been holding back the flood with a wall thickness of only 2 feet or less at the top but as this picture shows, the added mass will more than double the width of the dam wall, and the actual compaction will also be much better.
and a great deal of mass has been added to the dam wall, as well as clearing much more of the area to the left and top of the picture to prepare for further excavation.
Goldfish pond (not shown on plan), a bit murky after a rainA close in snapshot of the gold fish pond. This was created when the driveway was put in about 15 years ago, and has boasted hundreds of fish, all descended from a few 38 cent babies from Walmart. There have also been crayfish, herons, and one huge snapping turtle that have all visited the pond at different points. Needless to say I try to discourage the heron(s) and snapping turtles with varying degrees of success.
Last year the fish in this pond suffered with dry weather throught the fall and winter, and the fish population was cut in half. Some of my favorite older fish disappeared and many smaller ones as well. But this year they are making a comeback and water levels are doing pretty good, so with luck they will continue to increase populations again.
No, I’m not talking about Spring to Summer, but wet to dry, or in this case wet to moist. It’s June, and there’s still some water falling occasionally, but evaporation has caught up with precipitation and left many of the plants getting thirsty.
I’ve started to water plants, and plan to start pumping water from the middle pond up to the lower greenhouse. This will leave the thousand gallon cistern (almost full) to be a backup for when the pond gets too low to pump. I do expect to have plenty of water for the garden and new plantings right through till fall, but keeping the lower goldfish pond full may become a challenge.
Water is no longer overflowing naturally from the middle pond, so the fish pond is already 8 inches low. Last year was a fiasco of loose connections and haphazard attempts to fill the fish pond so this year one of the goals will be to make sure water goes directly to the fish pond from the middle pond when/if it becomes necessary to fill it a bit.
Water here is always a crap shoot, too much/ too little and no way to know in advance what the next season will bring. It is always possible we could get a good strong soaking rain that refills everything, but likely for the next couple months we will be lucky if it waters the plants occasionally.
I also have 4 new trees to plant, dwarf Granny Smith apple, Kiefer Pear, and two different pecans. I know where the pear can go, and have plans for the apple, but the pecans will need considerable space on the north side, of zone 1 and accessibility there is difficult. Cleaning out a path for the backhoe I discovered one of the locations already has hickory tees growing which I intend to leave there, so the next step is thought and observation locating an alternate space that will accommodate these massive trees.
Oh well, it keeps me busy.
Remember, if you’re not having fun, you’ve got the design wrong.
20th May, 2018
I hear about deserts that get all their rain in a few short (but often powerful) episodes, and three days later it’s impossible to believe there was ever water in dried river beds and barren landscapes.
Here in VA we had another 24 hour period with around 4 inches of rain, but fortunately everything held, even the very flimsy repair at the site of the last dam breach. We certainly have more rain overall than a desert, and it can be very lush and green most of the time, but occasionally we do get into droughts where rain is scarce over a period of several months. This means that just like in the deserts, careful water management can go a long way to insuring continued growth of crops.
Both new dams are very full, and the 6″ overflow pipe protected the lower gully dam from further washing out. Installing that pipe was a hasty repair after the first 4 inch episode washed out about 1/2 yard of material in the dam wall.
These dams are not the final stage of the water design, in fact, they are not even completed themselves. The full dam construction and the connected swales will really put the ground hydration into full speed. there will still be water flowing from the land into the creek, but it will have to travel a lot more slowly and service many more features before it moves on.
More contour ponds, more irrigation, and generally larger volumes of water being held back to use at later times when the air stream decides to dry up for long periods.
June 3, 2018
Well, we just had about another three inches of rain over the last week, and some of the extra repairs done to the lower gully dam have been paying off. With the new backhoe purchase I have been able to start building up the lower gully dam some more, including a better repair on the washed out section that has raised the water level another few inches, and at one point after the rain stopped this morning, the level rose all the way to the overflow pipe which I had raised up another 5 or 6 inches, along with more clay filled and compacted in on top of the initial repair.
These repairs are still being done in part by hand, but the backhoe is able to at least move the replacement material closer and fill the wheelbarrow so I only have to move the wheelbarrow a short distance and spread the clay and compact it. The real repairs and finish of the dam will come when the water levels start to recede.
Even though I can start to work on adding enough clay to drive the backhoe on top of the dam, there still needs to be more compacted clay added below the current water level to really create the dam as a stable feature in the landscape.
Justifying the use of heavy equipment in a sustainable system requires the creation of productive systems that will last a thousand years or more. Over the lifespan of a dam like these, a week or so of machine labor can translate into thousands of years of increased fertility and decreased erosion, These dams and swales will do what a climax forest would ordinarily do with the large volume of water held both in the bodies of the trees and the soil that carpets the forest floor.
With careful management over time these systems can help create stable ecosystems that are productive for our needs and stabilize the climate of the Earth.
Yes, the heron has returned.
I surprised the heron last night–or it surprised me, or neither surprised either, depending on how one perceives it. But the heron was at the fish pond and the fish went into hiding again.
I’m hoping the problem was that i had moved both scarecrows back a bit further from the pond. last night i moved one of the scarecrows right to the spot I saw the heron flying up from, and it had not returned this morning, although I did see it at the upper gully pond.
I have decided to let the upper gully pond be a fishing ground for the bird as much as possible. The bird will need to have someplace to hunt, and if the pressure is too extreme it may start to directly challenge the scarecrows rather than avoid them. It is unreasonable to expect the heron to leave forever, and guiding it away from a more valuable area to another place is always going to be more effective in the long term than simply trying to deny access altogether.
It is possible to set up complete exclusion zones, but one of the goals should also be to balance energy with payoff.
I know that my goldfish pond is out of balance, and I have been willing to sacrifice some energy through the summer to creating and moving scarecrows around. But I’m not willing to extend that energy to the other ponds, and with luck the heron may decide that looking for catfish is easier than taking a chance looking for goldfish.
September 6, 2017
Walking back from the fish pond in the rain, I had this new sense of well being, and not just because of the relief from drought and hot temperatures. Of course this time of year there is always the possibility of monsoons, or hurricanes dropping large amounts of water all at once, but today I documented the rise of about two feet in the level of the fish pond.
This was not due to rain, but because of a decision to start the waterfall by draining the remainder of water behind the Low Gully Dam. I could have done this sooner, but decided to hold onto the water there until I felt fairly sure we had turned the corner on water supply to the garden. Because of the steady rain, I felt safe enough in the garden requirements and the filling cistern to go ahead and release the impounded water.
Although they don’t say much, I’m sure the goldfish are quite grateful for the extra oxygenated water being continuously fed into their pond down below, which, because of the other dams recently constructed, has been receiving less water than before during the rains. But even with the rains, in years past, this time of year still sees that pond 3-4 feet below the high water mark. So my feeling of well being was really due to the ability to release on demand water for the fish pond. In future, the simple turning of a valve can save a pond full of fish if there is an extended dry spell.
P.A. Yeoman would say that ponds on a farm should be empty at the start of the rainy season, and it was tantamount to greed to try and hold onto that water when it could/should be sent to fields or places that might be able to use some extra. Also of course, that way the ponds can be cleaned, dams inspected and repaired, and generally made ready to hold their full capacity when the rains start all over again. In this case the water went to the fish, not gardens, but in future the High Gully Dam will likely have some excess water for gardens during the dry season.
Harvey, the hurricane, just dropped several feet of water down in Huston, and even the best prepared water design systems might be overwhelmed by that sort of exceptional stress, although a really good design still allows a way out when everything else is full to overflowing. In this case, there was the fear that aqueducts might break under the flood, causing even more damage to those in the valley below.
This can be a reminder that there is always the possibility of extremes even the best planners can’t foresee. While larger dams may be without secondary outlets, swales can take water away from the valley/gully where one would expect the worst accumulations of water, and as it spills over the swale at an intentional low spot on the swale, the water must find a new path back to the gully and more and more of it’s destructive erosive force can be lessened. At each dam the water is stopped and taken again and again out of the valley to the areas that normally would get less water and need it most.
While large well engineered dams can be magnificent, more,smaller dams can do a better job at the task of stop, spread, and soak. With fresh water becoming scarce, anything that can keep more of that fresh water from running out to sea is a welcome detour.
As trees disappear and the normal water cycle becomes interrupted, small dams and swales are recognized as the answer to these sudden events, and properly implemented, the swales (which are a tree growing system) can even help lead the landscape into a more naturally balanced water cycle with bands of trees on contour controlling the flood.
So while my swales are not yet fully developed, and my dams are still somewhat at the mercy of the rain, at least they are stopping most of the water that used to run directly to the creek and off the property. And this year enough of that water remained to substantially raise the water level in the fish pond when it otherwise might be stagnant.
As the ground becomes better hydrated each year I would expect to have more and more water, until there is a natural subterranean flow that automatically keeps all the ponds full, and all the swales growing trees.
It is easy to speculate how far hydration may take a basically dry landscape, but it is enough for me to feel good by being able to turn a valve and fill a pond with water that might have been long gone many months ago.