by Tao Orion
An award of $5,000 from PINA’s 2018 Design Contest enabled my husband Abel Kloster and me to build out a large pond at Aprovecho Institute near Cottage Grove, Oregon.
The vision for this major earthwork started around 12 years ago, soon after we arrived here in the summer of 2006. We were excited to put into practice the design skills and techniques we’d learned over the years since then in a series of Permaculture earthworks courses with Max Lindegger, Geoff Lawton, Darren Doherty, and Hazel (Tom Ward)
Tao & Abel at the completed (and full) pond.
In 2007, we built the first in a series of ponds at Aprovecho. We had heard from former residents and helpers that it was impossible to build ponds on the site – the land was too steep, the soils wouldn’t hold water. We were told that an early attempt to build a pond involved two dynamite charges – one blasted a hole, and the second blasted the blown-out soil right back into the hole. We’re not sure about the veracity of this last story, which has the ring of an urban (rural) legend. However, at the time we arrived at Aprovecho, there was only one small pond for soaking mushroom logs plus a dugout area for the ducks which filled in the winter and could be refilled in the summer with a hose from the well.
The summer we built the first pond, the well dried up. We had to drop the pump a further 10 feet to reach the falling water table. Building a pond in the same drainage as the well seemed timely. That pond held water throughout the summer, and did so for the next several years, giving us more confidence about the viability of ponds on the site.
Over the next several years, with the help of PDC students and mentors like Hazel and Rick Valley, we came up with an overall water plan for the site. It includes several ponds and a series of interconnecting drains and culverts that would allow us to move water strategically from the valleys where it pooled to the exposed ridges where the homes, gardens, orchards, and forest gardens are located. Developing this plan further, we’ve since built two of the other planned ponds and a series of swales and small ponds that can move water through the garden on demand. We’d always had it in mind “someday” to build a much larger pond high up in the main valley. We knew it would be expensive, so other investments took priority in the ensuing years.
Sebastian Kloster helps out in the log yarding during clearing of the pond site.
Pond after completion with road-mix cover crop and straw mulch to reduce erosion on the dam
In 2017, Aprovecho hosted an Advanced Permaculture Practicum on Water and Forestry. Participants laid out a plan for a Keyline forestry system including the larger “dream pond” at the top of the site. Their detailed surveying work demonstrated that this pond could be sited to maximize gravitational pressure (head) for fire mitigation. The location would also allow an overflow channel to carry water across the ridge to rehydrate one of the hottest and driest parts of the site. The dam wall would also provide much-needed road access into the northeastern section of the property so we could continue to carry out our sustainable forestry operations there. The spillway would allow water flowing out of the pond to stay in the same drainage, thereby enhancing the three ponds we had already built below. And, since we had built a test pit in that location 10 years earlier that had never gone dry – in fact it had remained full through increasingly hot and dry summers – we were assured that it would be a source of year round water for irrigation and summer recreation. We also liked that the pond site is in the forest. We had to clear some trees to make way for the pond and dam, but the pond will be shaded for most of the year, reducing evaporation potential.
Given the uncertain state of funding, I had reconciled myself to the thought that this pond might be part of the 20-to-30 year plan. When I first saw the PINA Design Contest posting, I didn’t consider entering. At the time though, Abel was finishing an update to Aprovecho’s Forest Stewardship Plan, and had put together some excellent maps of the pond area and the overall site with the help of our friend Michael Godfrey. I started thinking about whether we could actually do all the work needed to clear the site and build the pond for $5,000. After talking it over with Abel, it seemed narrowly possible, especially if he did most of the clearing work and excavation to keep costs down. The timing was fortuitous, so on the last day of the Contest I decided to enter. I wasn’t expecting to win, so was happily surprised when we made it into the finalist round of five designs. Then I was overjoyed to learn that PINA members had voted us the award.
After this moment of elation, we realized we had to get to work!
It’s become increasingly difficult to find windows of time to work with heavy machinery, or even chainsaws, on forested properties in Oregon in the summer. Soon after it dries up enough to fell trees without causing compaction and erosion, the fire danger spikes. As restrictions set in, the daily window for operating machinery in the woods ends first at 1pm, then at 10am, then is completely prohibited by local fire authorities. Abel and Joe Pongratz worked diligently within these constraints to clear the site as we watched for a time when we could bring an excavator onto the site to begin the construction. This is tricky because the machines have to be reserved well ahead, but it’s not always clear what the conditions will be on the ground when the day arrives.
Excavating the pond and shaping the dam.
We were eyeing the first two weeks of October. Then came the end of September, and we got about 4″ of rain in a week. The fire danger receded, but we grew concerned the site might be too wet. Driving a 20,000 pound excavator on slippery wet clay is challenging and potentially dangerous, but we decided to go ahead with it because we didn’t know if we would have another opportunity for the rest of the year. We might have had to wait until the following June to start construction.
So we rented the excavator, drove it up to the site, and Abel started digging. The process went fairly quickly – a big machine can move a lot of soil! It did rain one afternoon, and Abel started slipping around on the machine, so he called it off for the day, which is hard to do when you’re being charged $600 a day rain or shine. However, it was for the best, and we were grateful to have a series of clear days after that. After five more days of machine work, and a full day of cleaning the machine with a pressure washer (did I mention super sticky heavy clay?), the digging was done!
We used about 50 gallons of diesel to run the machine. We figure the pond will hold 150,000 gallons when full. For reference, a small pond we built by hand above this new one took 10 people seven full days to excavate, and it holds some 700 gallons. So, though it’s petroleum intensive and stressful to work with such a big machine, I believe the energy use is justified. The fossil resources are being put to an important purpose – rehydrating the watershed, allowing the forest to flourish.
Trickle tube filter. Once the pond is full, excess water drains into this device and exits farther down the spillway, helping to reduce erosion on the spillway itself.
As I write this, the winter solstice approaches, and we have received only 20% of the rainfall that we normally get in an average season, yet the pond is nearly full. As the winter deepens, and more rain falls, the pond will fill and begin to flow down the spillway to the next, then into the three others we’ve built below. We look forward to seeing how this pond influences the rest of the watershed – both in the upper reaches of the site where the soil-borne water can nourish forest and garden species alike, and at the lowest point where the drainage meets Calico Creek.
This year, the creek (which used to be year round on old maps) stopped flowing in May and just started flowing again in the first week of December – meaning for more than half the year it was completely dry. The entire upper watershed above Aprovecho’s property has been clearcut, ensuring that most of the rain that does fall leaves the watershed quickly, carrying away soil left bare from shortsighted forestry.
Our primary goal for this pond, along with other earthworks and creek restoration projects, is to contribute to the likelihood that Calico Creek will run year round again. That is the greatest legacy we could leave to our children and all of the inhabitants of this valley. We’re so grateful to be part of that regeneration. Thank you all for your support in this pond building process. Please be in touch if you’d like to come check it out or take a dip!