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Keep Your Pond in Good Condition

Watershed ponds are a common part of the Oklahoma landscape. Unfortunately, most pond owners do not know how to inspect and maintain their ponds. Without maintenance, pond life is shortened and major repairs are often needed. This Fact Sheet aims to provide a simple set of steps to ensure the investment for the pond is protected. Taking the time to do regular walking inspections of your pond will pay off by catching problems early, when repairs are much less expensive.


Recognizing pond problems early does not take long and should be a part of your yearly calendar. It begins with understanding the parts of the three major parts of a pond: the dam, watershed and basin.


A checklist is included at the end of this fact sheet to copy and use as an inspection guide. Keep a notebook of these completed checklists along with photos and other information to help recognize slowly occurring changes that might be otherwise missed.


When inspecting the pond, it is recommended you take along the following items:

  • Survey Flags, Flagging or Stakes – to mark any problem, making it easy to relocate.
  •  Camera – to show an engineer or technician exact concerns.


The Dam

The force of water pushing against a dam is enormous. Even a well-built dam is vulnerable to failure if not maintained. The final stages of a dam failure happen quickly and can easily destroy buildings and kill people or livestock unfortunate enough to be in the way (Figure 1).


If the opportunity to build a new dam exists, consider spending more money and time to have a wider top and gentle slopes. A wider top will greatly reduce the chances of pond blowouts due to animals burrowing and other factors. Gentle dam slopes allow safer mowing. Mowing once or more a year is one way to prevent damage due to brush and tree growth (Figure  2).


Any weakness in an earthen dam can lead to a catastrophic failure of the structure cartoon.


Figure 1. Any weakness in an earthen dam can lead to a catastrophic failure of the structure.


A properly designed dam with gentle slopes and a wide top will pay off in ease of maintenance, less potential for erosion and less likelihood of serious animal burrow damage leading to dam failure.


Figure 2. A properly designed dam with gentle slopes and a wide top will pay off in ease of maintenance, less potential for erosion and less likelihood of serious animal burrow damage leading to dam failure. (Courtesy FEMA)


The crown or top of an earthen dam should be maintained to slope away from the center line to shed water. A poorly maintained crown can lead to water overtopping the dam, leading to a complete dam blowout.


Potential problems with dam crowns

  • Not higher in middle to shed water, allowing water to puddle.
  • Ruts from vehicles or cattle trails.
  • Vehicles should not be driven across a dam unless it has a very wide top designed for this purpose. Dams designed for vehicles typically have a 25-foot or wider top. In addition to creating ruts, the weight of vehicles will cause the shoulders of the dam crown to slump, leading to a narrowing of the top width.
  • Grass cover too thin to prevent erosion.
  • Slumping or eroding shoulders. 
  • Animal burrows – mounds, tunnels and collapsed areas.


For advice on recognizing and managing nuisance burrowing animals see FEMA 473, Technical Manual for Dam Owners: Impacts of Animals on Earthen Dams. Mounds indicating gopher burrowing are easily seen. Muskrat and beaver activity may be harder to recognize, since burrow entrances are below the waterline. Before attempting to repair the burrow,  the nuisance animal must be eliminated using appropriate methods of the type discussed in FEMA publication 473.


One possible repair method for small burrows is a thick slurry mix of 90 percent soil and 10 percent cement. Do not make the mix too watery. Use just enough water in the mix to allow the slurry to flow into the burrow. Insert a metal stove or vent pipe into the burrow entrance, seal the area around it well and then use it to funnel the mix into the burrow. Also be on the lookout for collapsed areas that may indicate beaver dens in the crown of the dam. These typically require digging out and repacking with good clay soil. As always, seek the advice of NRCS professionals.



There are two slopes or “faces” of the dam: the upstream and downstream sides. Grass can hide problems, so a close walking inspection is needed to cover the entire dam face to  inspect the slopes for the problems discussed next. Use the walking pattern best suited for your dam as recommended in Figure 3.


Man demonstrates how to inspect small dams and dams with steep slopes.


Figure 3. Suggested walking patterns for inspecting dam slopes. Upper image shows how best to inspect small dams and mild slopes. Lower image is for dams with steep slopes. (Courtesy FEMA)


Potential problems on dam slopes:

  • Wave erosion on inside face – seek NRCS advice. Wave erosion solutions may involve hardening the eroding area, use of floating barriers to reduce wave impact or establishment of emergent aquatic plants.
  • Animal burrows – mounds, tunnels, collapsed areas, and paths in vegetation indicating underwater burrow entrances. The characteristics of beaver, muskrat and gopher burrows are shown in Figures 2 and 4.


Characteristics of gopher burrows.


Figure 4. Characteristics of gopher burrows. (Courtesy FEMA)


  • Trees or woody plants – If these are large, seek NRCS advice. Otherwise remove by cutting and/or use of herbicides as most appropriate. Apply herbicides according to the label. Removing large woody plants can weaken a dam if roots are not removed and the hole properly repacked (Figure  5). Seek expert advice.


Diagram showing reason that earthen dams are condemned during inspections.


Figure 5. Trees are the leading reason that earthen dams are condemned during inspections. Blown down trees and decaying tree roots can greatly weaken dams leading to their failure. Animal burrows raise the risk. (Courtesy FEMA)


  • Grass cover – too thin to prevent erosion.
  • Cattle trails or bare soil. Fence cattle to keep them off the dam and take steps to reestablish good grass cover – seeding or sprigging and soil amendment and irrigation if needed.
  • Cracking or slumping – flag and take photo. Beware of the possible danger if a section of the dam face breaks loose and slides
  • Excess seepage – If a new damp or wet spot is seen, flag it. A new wet spot cold be a serious warning sign– seek advice.


Primary spillway

The primary “spillway” of a pond is the first place the pond overflows. It may be a pipe a few feet below the top of the dam that runs through it (trickle tube) or a vertical pipe on the inside of the dam (internal standpipe) or a concrete tower, in the case of large flood control ponds (Figure 6).


In larger ponds, there is often an open cage of rods (trash rack) on top of the primary spillway. These work to prevent clogging of the primary spillway by floating tree limbs or other debris.


An internal standpipe and trickle tube are both examples of primary pond spillways.


Figure 6. An internal standpipe (top) and trickle tube (bottom) are both examples of primary pond spillways. (Credit: University of Missouri Extension publication G9474)


Potential problems with primary spillways: 

  • No trash rack – potential for clogging by floating trees limbs or other debris.  Beware of the lethal hazard posed by an overflowing primary spillway. Never attempt to unclog a large spillway pipe or tower while swimming or from a boat. Do not get anywhere close to the intake.
  • Signs of damage to the pipe or tower – corrosion, collapse, etc.


Auxiliary spillway

Once the capacity of the primary spillway is exceeded, the water level rises and the flow begins across the auxiliary spillway. This structure used to be called the emergency spillway. Usually it is a broad, flat channel to one side of the earthen dam. Good grass cover is essential to protect against the erosive power of flowing water.


Potential problems with auxiliary spillways:

  • Inadequate grass cover to prevent erosion. 
  • Rutting by vehicles or livestock.
  • Erosion – check entire spillway for eroding areas, especially the outside toe.
  • Blockages or other changes – these could prevent proper functioning.
  • Nothing should be done to the auxiliary spillway that will block the free flow of water during an overflow event. Auxiliary spillways are to be flat from side to side to allow uniform depth of flow. They should never be modified or blocked without expert guidance.


The Watershed

This is the area of land that catches the rainfall to fill the pond. Typically, it will be 10 or more times larger than the pond basin (Figure 7). It often will include other people’s property so close inspection of the total area is not possible.


Yellow line points out the area of land that slopes towards the pond known as the watershed.


Figure 7. The area of land that slopes towards the pond is known as the watershed. Get to know the boundaries of your pond watershed so you are aware of any problems that might harm the pond. (Credit: Winfield Fairchild, Ponds of Chester County, Pennsylvania)


Potential problems in pond watersheds:

  • Grass cover – lacking, inadequate or adequate coverage to prevent erosion which will muddy ponds. In some cases it may be useful to build a small sediment entrapment pond above the pond.
  • Dirt roads can be a major source of clay, silt and sand washing into ponds.
  • Oil field activity – salt water, drilling mud or oil can impact ponds downslope if something goes wrong.
  • Fertilizer use – When applied to lawns or crops in excess of plant need, fertilizer runoff can lead to pond algae problems.
  • Animal manure – corrals, storage piles and application to land in excess of soil test recommendations can lead to pond algae problems.
  • Trash dumps – may release toxic substances.
  • Ponds that drain into a pond – undesirable fish can move into a pond when higher ponds are overflowing.


The Basin

The basin is the “pool” part of your pond. The soils in a properly planned pond basin should have adequate clay content to retain water with minimal seepage. Rock layers and pockets of sand or gravel can create problems by allowing high rates of seepage. Seek advice if the pond basin does not hold water. There are many reasons why a pond basin may not hold water and multiple ways to correct these problems.



Basins are vulnerable to being filled in by soil that washes into the pond and to shoreline collapse, slumping or erosion. The greater the exposure of a basin to wind, the more energy waves will have to erode shorelines. Aquatic plants prevent edge erosion by dampening wave energy and holding soft shoreline soils together with their root systems (Figure 8)


Shoreline demonstraes eriosion being proteted by aquatic plants compared to one in the early stages of eriosion with no plants.


Figure 8. A shoreline that is well protected against erosion by aquatic plants (left) and one in the early stages of serious erosion, due to lack of aquatic plants (right).


Potential problems with pond shorelines:

  • Sediment filling – sand and silt has washed into the pond. 
  • Edge slumping or collapse. 
  • Edge erosion.


Aquatic plant coverage

Unlike brush and trees on dams, aquatic plants are needed in a pond in moderate amounts. Learn the names of the common aquatic plants in your pond so you can recognize when a new, potentially damaging plant appears. There are three categories of pond plants based on where they grow:


  • Shoreline emergent plants may be tall or short. They do an excellent job of protecting against wave erosion. Tall shoreline emergent plants can block the view and access to the pond. 
  • Submerged aquatic plants are desirable for fish populations. They offer shelter for small fish to escape larger fish and create habitat for insects for food. From a fishing point of view, the optimal amount of submerged plants is from 20 percent to 30 percent of the pond basin. They also help to oxygenate the water. Submerged plants become a problem when they interfere with casting by anglers or take up the majority of the pond volume. 
  • Floating plants become a problem when they cover all or most of a pond, preventing the light penetration needed to produce oxygen through photosynthesis. Seek help in identifying plants and managing them by contacting the local county Extension office.


The process of ponds becoming choked by excessive aquatic plant growth usually happens over several years. Do a yearly plant coverage check to recognize a problem in the early to middle stages, when it is much easier to manage. Pick a month in the growing season and get in the habit of doing a check on plant abundance each year at that time:


  • Take a photo from the same spot or make a sketch every year of the areas covered by plants,




 Estimate the percent of the pond that is covered. This will let you recognize when a problem is developing. Do this during the growing season and during the same month each year,




  • Draw a bird’s eye view sketch of the pond showing the area covered by these three plant types.


Water appearance 

The appearance of the pond water can indicate problems with excess fertilizer runoff into the pond, watershed erosion, leaf accumulation or other issues. Seek advice from the local county Extension office. Note the water’s appearance:


  • Clear
  • Greenish – Estimate how many inches you can see into the water or use a secchi disk.
  • Surface scums
  • Muddy
  • Stained or other unusual appearance.


No Fact Sheet can give you the benefit of all the expertise and experience of a trained professional. For this reason, it is recommended that the local office of the Natural Resource Conservation Service is contacted whenever questions or concerns about the safety or maintenance of your pond structures.  With the help of this Fact Sheet, you will know what to check and the right questions to ask to prevent a situation that is beyond the point of repair.


Yearly Pond Inspection


Yearly Pond Inspection 


Yearly Pond Inspection cont.


Marley Beem

Assistant Extension Specialist, Aquaculture

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