Farm ponds are water-holding structures that may receive their water from one or more sources. The pond is able to store water for future use, but it is usually not suitable for supplying potable water because it may contain numerous bacteria or other organisms that are harmful to humans. Pond water is normally used for livestock water, small-scale irrigation (such as for vegetable gardens or a few fruit trees), raising fish or domestic waterfowl, wildlife, and fire protection. Most farm ponds collect runoff water from surrounding lands, so they may have fecal contamination from livestock manure. Runoff may carry the manure and its organisms into the pond, or livestock may defecate directly in the water while they are drinking.

Pond construction:

Most ponds consist of a small dirt dam constructed in a water channel to intercept and store water from rain and snow that falls upslope from the dam. This means that the pond depends upon water from precipitation, and there must be enough water flowing over the surface of the land to collect behind the dam. You need to make a preliminary dam site selection in a drainage that is in the area where water is needed. Ideally, the natural features of the area will allow placement of the dam in a narrow area in the drainage to minimize the amount of dirt to be moved, plus the drainage will open up behind the dam site to maximize the water storage area of the pond.

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Who owns the water?
Oregon law provides that all water is publicly owned. With only a few exceptions, a water right is required before any person (including a city, business or other entity) may divert water from its natural course and put it to “beneficial use.”

What is a water right?
A water right is authorization from the state to make use of water – either surface water or ground water. Since 1909, state law has required issuance of a water right before using surface water. Ground water has been subject to the permit requirements statewide since 1955. Water rights are issued by the Oregon Water Resources Department (WRD).

What does “use it or lose it” mean?
This phrase relates to a basic element of water law – that the right must be regularly exercised in order to remain valid. A certificated water right remains valid forever, so long as it is used. If the water right is not used for a period of five or more years, it then becomes subject to forfeiture and cancellation. The process is not automatic. The state must first prove that the water right has not been used. The law includes a presumption of forfeiture upon a showing of non-use for the five-year period. The water right holder then has an opportunity to show whether the non-use was “excused” for one of a number reasons listed in the statutes. Excuses for non-use include, but are not limited to: economic hardship; other government regulations that prevent water use; or participation in a conservation reserve program.

What are “exempt” water uses?
The law includes limited exceptions to the general rule that a water right is required. Exempt uses of surface water include: stock watering; certain small ponds and reservoirs that were constructed and registered with the state before January 31, 1997; fire fighting; certain forest management practices; certain land management practices (such as erosion control) where the primary purpose is not to make use of the water; use of small natural springs that do not flow off the property where the spring originates; and certain types of fish enhancement projects.

What about ponds and reservoirs?
A water right is required to construct a pond or reservoir – even a small one. About 20,000 small ponds and reservoirs that were in existence before 1995, and that were registered with the state by 1997, are exempt from the water right requirement. All other ponds and reservoirs require at least one water right – to authorize the storage of either surface or ground water in the pond or reservoir. When the stored water will be used for some additional purpose, such as irrigation, an additional water right is required. Storage is generally allowed only during a specified storage “season” – usually during the winter and early spring months.

Want to build a pond, do you? Why? How big do you want it? How big can you make it? What kind of information should you have before you start? Where can you get information on the right way to build a pond the first time? Geez, so many decisions, so little time.
First and foremost…make a plan. The more you know in advance, the smoother your project will go. It is incumbent on you to know as much as possible BEFORE the bulldozers show up.
Hear this…lots of planning costs very little compared to the cost of fixing mistakes. Changes made during the pen and paper stages are much less painful than changes made when dirt begins to roll.
Accept Mother Nature’s offerings. Accept your budget. If those two can’t be married, put off the project until they can grow together…and that means your budget needs to grow, first. If Mother Nature dictates a large pond on your watershed, don’t build a small one. Mother Nature will win. She always does.
When things become complicated during your planning phase, or even when the earthmovers are doing what they do, remember the two basic necessities…dirt and water. That’s your fundamentals. This process becomes much simpler if you have “good” dirt and plentiful water. Not excessive water, but plentiful. Think about that concept. It’s important.
I looked at a beautiful pond at the northern edge of the Texas Hill Country not long ago. Beautiful setting amongst big live oak trees, nestled in a valley surrounded by rock outcroppings and tall, cedar covered hills. This pond covers about six acres.
It rained. Pond filled.
Pond drained. Empty
Plentiful water, poor soils. No good…unless you want a part time pond and part time meadow.
If a pond fills up after a good rain, but the water does not stay, nothing has been accomplished.
The same holds true with water, the best dam building material will not amount to anything if there is not enough water to fill up the pond. I’ve seen some giant earthen monuments to poor planning.
“Bad” dirt can be worked around, manipulated and processed with good dirt, so long as it can be compacted. So can a shortage of rain water, as long as you can figure out how to collect and keep what you get, but you need to know what you are up against before starting. This is a good time to check with a local engineer or dirt contractor to help advise you how to make the best decisions with marginal quality dirt or the “wrong” amount of water.
Here are a couple of things you can do to get the ball rolling.

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