Pond Damage!

Lately we have been dealing with a few damaged ponds here in Southeastern Wisconsin.  Through the years, I’ve been impressed with the durability and resilience of the eco-system ponds that we install.  For the most part, these ponds can withstand all sorts of abuse and come out unharmed.  You can walk, jump, run or swim in your pond without the fear of wrecking anything.  Your dog or dogs can use our ponds as swimming pools and drinking troughs and never do any damage.  Deer can walk through and stand in these ponds and I’ve yet to see a rip in the liner from a deer hoof.  I’ve driven over the pond bottom with a skid steer and an excavator.  I’ve rolled huge rocks around on the rubber liner and even dropped a few huge rocks on the liner.  All of these things and usually no damage.  Granted, you need to be cautious and know what you’re doing to drive equipment and maneuver huge rocks on top of the rubber, but for the most part, clients ponds just don’t get damaged very easily.

The only real damage that we see is from teeth.  Every spring we get a few calls from pond owners whose ponds are suddenly leaking.  Most of the time this is from a hole in the rubber liner somewhere in the stream or the pond edge and it’s usually located on a vertical surface.  It seems that mice like to crawl in between the rocks of our ponds and try to make themselves a little burrow for the winter.  I’ve seen holes the size of oranges and tiny little holes the size of a dime.  Some of the holes are clearly leading to a burrow and others simply appear to be chewed on.  Either way, it is a good thing to look for if your pond has a sudden leak as soon as you fire it up in spring.

Sure, this mouse hole business is definitely damage, but it is not really the damage that I was refering to when I started this post.  The damage that I was refering to is similar but on a much larger scale.  Instead of orange or dime size holes, I’ve seen long holes large enough to pass a party sub sandwich through, sideways!  I’ve seen multiple holes the size of a grapefruit in one pond.  I’ve seen ponds with an entire wheelbarrow’s worth of dirt in them.  Damage to this extent, here in Ozaukee county Wisconsin, I’ve only seen done at the hands (or should I say teeth) of the pond spoiling MUSKRAT!

The Pond Wrecking Crew

These toothy little critters can really mess up your pond in a short time!

It seems that the Muskrat likes to swim in ponds and eat the various aquatic plants that we pond owners like to keep in our ponds.  Once they find a pond full of tasty food then they start to think about moving in to stay.  This is when the real trouble starts.  Like the mice, they find a gap between the rocks and they also burrow into the rubber to make a nest.  The difference here is that the mice usually do it in winter and usually do it in the stream or in an edge above the water line.  The Muskrat does it any time of the year and does it well below the water line.  They want to create a burrow that is only accessible from under the water to discourage their predators from joining them I would imagine.  So, they dig and dig and dig.  I’ve seen holes that start one or two feet below the water line with burrows that go for ten feet into the pond bank.  At my house we had one make a burrow that twisted and turned and ended up under my stream.  They want to access it from the water and then create a burrow above the water line to stay dry.  I’ve seen where they, for whatever reason, burrow just behind the rocks in the pond tearing up the rubber all along their path.  This is where the party sub effect comes in.  I’ve seen long holes about six inches wide that stretch for six to eight feet!  Talk about a lot of patching work.  Of course, when tunneling, the spoils must go somewhere.  That somewhere is in your pond.  These pesky creatures push all of the excavated soil into your pond.  So now, not only do you have a pond that is losing water at an alarming rate, but you also have a big pile of mud in your pond.

What to do, what to do?  Well, you definitely want to get these pests out of your pond as soon as possible.  If you ever notice chewed up plant material floating in your pond, you probably have a Muskrat.  At this point you had better act quick.  I’ve heard of people shooting them or trapping them.  I suppose the most humane method would be the live trap, but the Muskrat is a prolific breeder and one female can have up to four litters a season of up to four to eight young each, so I wouldn’t worry about the population.  There is a legal muskrat trapping season in the fall here in Wisconsin.

The patching and clean up from a muskrat can go on for a day or two.  Obviously you need to pump down the water to a level below the holes, or maybe the pond is already at this level due to the gaping hole in the liner.  Find the hole by looking for the telltale pile of mud in the pond or by looking for the chucks of chewed up rubber scattered about the pond floor.  Look in between rocks anywhere that a Muskrat head would fit.  Most of the time you will need to remove all of the rock from the area where you found the first hole.  Moving all adjacent rock will oftentimes reveal more holes.  Once you feel that you have located all of the holes, you can patch them and try to remove as much of the mud as possible from the pond.  If the holes are too large to patch, you may need to seam in an entirely new piece of rubber.  When all of this is done, put the rocks back in place and fill the pond to test your patches.  Keep your fingers crossed, there might be multiple holes in multiple areas.  If you’re not careful, you may need to drain the pond again to find the missing hole.

Luckily, I’ve only seen muskrat damage in five lined ponds since I’ve started installing them, so this doesn’t happen too often, but when it does it is a real mess.  I have seen natural bottom ponds drained by muskrats also, it is very similar, except they just burrow through the side of the pond.  Sometimes they do this simply to create their burrow, other times they want an underground passage from the pond to an adjacent wetland area.  This can be a very hard problem to fix and I’ve heard of people trenching around their ponds with deep trenching machines so that they can fill the trench with heavy clay or concrete hoping to stop the burrowing.

I am currently working on a pond that is rubber lined and was damaged by a Muskrat last fall.  We went in to try to patch it in late fall, but we didn’t find all of the holes, so the pond still leaked.  The homeowner took all of his fish into the basement for the winter and kept them in huge tanks.  We are now in the process of removing all of the rock from the pond and replacing the liner.  Once the new liner is in, we will line the pond with stainless steel screening to prevent any more burrowing.  I have never tried this approach before, but the homeowner found the screening and wants to give it a try.  I guess a winter with a basement full of fish will inspire one to go to great lengths to avoid this in the future.  The pond is about 18′ x 25′ x 3′ deep and the stainless steel screening cost about $3000.  Wow, what an expensive repair job.  I feel really bad about the disruption of the yard, the pond eco-system and the homeowners pocket book, but hopefully he’ll never have this problem again.

We did have one homeowner request protection a few years ago and we installed a galvanized hardware cloth on top of the rubber on only the first shelf level.  The mesh was about 1/4″ squares and was quite rigid.  It wasn’t much fun to work with and we really needed to protect the rubber from it’s sharp protruding wires.  We haven’t been back to repair any holes, but I don’t know if that is because of the mesh or because there just haven’t been any more Muskrats in the pond.

I sincerely hope that you never need to deal with this type of pond damage, but if you do I wish you the best of luck with your repairs.


Posted in Ponds by Doug. 23 Comments

To Clean or Not To Clean?

This spring, as I take calls for the usual spring clean-outs, I’ve gotten many questions regarding how far a pond owner needs to go for their clean-out.  Do they need to pump it down, remove the fish and pressure wash?  Can they just pump it partially down and partially clean it?  Can they just skim out the debris and start it up?  I guess that I’m getting more questions this spring due to the economic times and peoples’ desire to save a buck.  I can understand that, we all need to tighten the belt a few notches.

Well, the answer is not as simple as they may want to hear, but in short, the answer to all of the above questions is YES!  Any of these spring treatments will work.  Once again I go back to the simple fact that we are talking about natural eco-system ponds, not swimming pools and not fountains.  These are natural ponds, so they can be treated as naturally as you wish to treat them.  Also, I will state again as I have before that when dealing with Mother Nature, there are rarely “sure thing”, cut and dry answers.  The answers are often a bit more interconnected and complicated.

I’ve got many clients who love to see their pond pumped down and completely pressure washed and cleaned each spring.  I liken this to the spring cleaning that many of us do inside our homes.  There is a good feeling that comes along with welcoming the new spring with a fresh clean start.  The same feeling that you may get from a sparkling clean house can also be had from staring into your freshly cleaned water garden.  Each rock as clean and colorful as the day that it was installed and fresh clean water to start the year.  This is the approach that many pond installers and maintainers swear by.  They will tell you in no uncertain terms that you must perform this cleaning every spring.  I profit from clean-outs also, but I’ve got to tell you that this is simply not necessary every year for every pond.  If you like the spring cleaning, then by all means, it is your right to clean out your pond however you see fit.  But, especially in times when many families are trying to reduce expenditures, you shouldn’t feel bad for skipping a year or two.

Take a look at your pond.  If you have an ecosystem pond with rocks, gravel, plants, bacteria, moving water and fish, chances are you don’t need to clean it as often as you might think.  If your pond is not overloaded with fish and it is not heavily burdened with leaves and debris, then you can probably just clean out all of the filter media, manually remove as much debris as you can, start it up and maybe do a twenty percent water change.  Sure, you won’t have that spik n’ span look, but it will most likely be easier on your fish, easier on your pocketbook and easier on the balance of your pond.  When you completely drain and wash a pond, you remove some of the nature.  This thorough spring cleaning puts your pond into a state of relative imbalance.  Personally I fully clean my pond every few years if it looks like it needs it.  Last year and the year before, I simply skimmed out debris with a net, cleaned my skimmer and Biofalls filters, added some barley and bacteria and fired it up.  It wasn’t the cleanest pond on the block and it had some pretty green fuzzy rocks at first, but once the water warmed, it looked like any other year.  The water warms, the plants and fish become more active, the fish eat the algae from the rocks and the plants pull nutrients from the water.  Before you know it I had a nice clean, healthy pond without the extreme clean-out.  This is yet another lesson in the theory that sometimes less is more.  Think nature!


Happy Pondering,

Doug Hurth



Posted in Ponds by Doug. 5 Comments

Clean – Outs!

This time of year we are knee deep waist deep in pond clean outs.  Most of our pond owners like to start the year with a clean out.  How much of a clean-out is necessary is the often asked question of the season.  I always give my clients options.

Full Clean

A full clean would consist of pumping all of the water from your pond and putting the fish into a holding tank with some of your pond water.  All of your filter pads/media would be removed and rinsed out if you have a skimmer or bio-falls.  If you have a wetland filter, it would be back-flushed with pond water.  All of the loose debris and dead plant material would be removed from the pond, any over-grown over-spreading plants would be thinned and all of the rocks and gravel would be pressure washed.  The pressure washing would result in more debris in the bottom of the pond which would also be removed.  Over the year, due to walking in the pond, fish digging around and our pressure washing, some of the gravel tends to work it’s way off of the upper shelves and down to the bottom.  We redistribute the gravel throughout the pond to ensure a nice layer about an or two thick.  Thicker gravel just causes more problems.  Any rocks that may have moved over the year are reset.  All of the lights in the pond are checked and repaired or replaced.  Many people are replacing the old halogen lamps with new LED lamps.  We then wash down the pond one more time with a garden hose to wash away and pump out more of the muddy yuck on the bottom.  You don’t need the pond to be completely clean, it is a pond and a pond void of all bacteria and enzymes is not well balanced.  So, a bit of muddy yuck is OK, but muddy yuck thick enough to scoop out with your hand is not.  Any and all filter boxes are washed out and the pump, filter pads, media, etc. are installed.  We put barley bales in the bio-falls along with a good dose of start-up bacteria and enzymes and some de-chlorinator if we will be filling with city water.  As we are filling, we will re-introduce your fish.  Once the pond is full, we test run it and we are done.


Partial Clean

With a partial clean, we pump your pond down to the first level, pressure wash only the upper rocks, skim as much debris as possible out of your pond and fill it back up.  The fish are not removed.  All debris that we can get and dead plant material is removed.  All of the filter pads/media are removed and cleaned, the boxes are cleaned and the pumps and media re-installed.  Barley, bacteria and de-chlorinator is added just like the full clean and the pond is filled and started.


Minimal Clean

No water is removed, the filter media is cleaned and we remove as much debris and plant material as is possible with a net.  Barley and bacteria are added, your pump is installed and we run the pond.


Which type of clean-out or start-up you need depends on you and your pond.  If you really like things clean, go with a full clean.  If you like things quick and easy, then go with the minimal clean.  What are you comfortable with?  If your pond bottom is full of last years leaves, many of your fish or all of your fish died, your water looks murky and you found a dead squirrel in your skimmer, then you may want a full clean.  If on the other hand, you enjoy working on your pond, your pond is well balanced, your water quality was great last year, you cut down the plants last fall and you’ve kept the bottom free of debris with your net, then you can probably just start it up and let it run.

The better balanced your pond is, the less cleaning it will need.  The big problem is usually debris build up on the bottom.  For many people, the fall leaves really overload the pond and make a spring cleaning necessary.  Some folks net their ponds in fall to avoid this problem.

In the end, it’s a balance between what the pond needs and what the owner wants.


Happy Pondering,


Posted in Ponds by Doug. No Comments

Buckthorn and Turkey

Well, we are back out to the buckthorn site today.  We skipped yesterday due to the rain.  When we were out there the last time on Tuesday, the weather was perfect and their were Turkeys all over the place.  This particular site has been very popular with the Turkeys since we started working there about four years ago.  The owner does some feeding.  She feeds the songbirds, squirrels and turkeys.  I can’t seem to get used to having these big beautiful turkeys so close to us while we work.  Heck, when I was young, you never, ever saw turkeys anywhere.  I went to college in Stevens Point and I remember it being a big deal that you could see turkey and sandhill cranes at the Mead wildlife area.  Now both of these animals have made such a comeback that it is becoming commonplace to see turkeys crossing the road like deer and to see those tall majestic cranes standing in the middle of a farm field.  While we were on the job I took some quick videos.  Check it out.


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Buckthorn Blitz

We have been hired to clean up a hillside full of Buckthorn.  The site is just beautiful; a steep Northern and Western slope over-looking Nagawicka Lake in Delafield.  The slope is dotted with large mature Oak trees and it is a very majestic view once the Buckthorn are removed.

Buchthorn removal involves cutting the Buckthorn to the ground and then spraying it with some sort of herbicide.  We started this project three years ago and are really just finishing up the first stage this week (weather permitting).  Not that we’ve been working on it non-stop.  The work has been rather fragmented with a few days here and a few days there.  We hit it pretty good for a couple of weeks in 2009, skipped it entirely in 2010 and now we are back at it for 10 days in 2011.  For proper application of the herbicide, we need to be able to spray the cut stump down to the ground level.  This becomes a bit of a problem when the snow gets deep.  In the begining of the winter we were working in an area that was mostly small twiggy growth and the snow was light and fluffy, so we just wisked it away to spray.  Once the snow got heavy and frozen, we could no longer just wisk it away, so we waited for the weather to help us out.  Whenever the snow melted enough to give us access, we tried to get in for a day or two of work.

In some areas the Buckthorn had been cut before and it is really coming back with a vengeance.  In other areas it had never been cut as far as I can tell and we are removing plants of 6″-8″ diameter in some cases.  We aren’t hauling the wood out, due to the steep hill.  Instead we are just cutting it up and leaving it on site.  In a way, this might be better, at least we’re not spreading the berries across the property trying to move this stuff.  I’ve read that the berries can still be viable up to seven years in the future.  Wow, I guess we’ll be tending to this hillside for many years to come.  Hopefully in future years we can just run through with a brush cutter for a few days rather than needing the chainsaw.

I’ll check back.


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