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The View from White Oaks

Lauren R. Stevens: Upkeep on small ponds can put some landowners up to their necks in trouble. But it doesn't have to be that way

Clark pondJPG

A pond on the grounds of The Clark Art Institute in Williamstown. While state government or associations take care of larger ponds, private landowners usually have to handle upkeep on smaller ponds — and resuscitating a pond can be complicated and expensive.

Resuscitating a pond can be complicated and expensive.

Massachusetts’ great ponds — those with an area of 10 acres or more — are in the public domain. There are many of them in Berkshire County and many more, smaller, that seem just as great to their private and institutional owners. Large or small, most ponds suffer from the same problems. Government or associations usually take care of larger ponds, but what help is there for the individual owners of smaller waterbodies?

You watch your pond filling in, its banks eroding, invasive aquatic plants taking over and smelly algal scum covering the surface. When you bought your house, the pond seemed like an attractive feature. You thought having a pond was a positive environmental statement, a favor to wildlife and birds; you thought humans might use it for recreation. Now you wouldn’t let your dog cool off in your pond.

It is in the nature of ponds to fill in over time, becoming first wetlands and then dry land, a process in which beavers sometimes interfere. Henry David Thoreau noticed this process, in the early 19th century, although his chosen pond, Walden, is somewhat immune. Human activities speed up succession, but humans can also slow it down.

Massachusetts’ Wetlands Protection Act, enforced by your local Conservation Commission, established a 100-foot buffer around ponds. Most alterations near the pond need the commission’s blessing.

Avoiding problems is the best solution. Nearby development is likely to harden surfaces and cause more runoff. The shifting of soils can be slowed temporarily by siltation socks and longer term by planting trees and shrubs. Pollution speeds succession, whether from a pipe, often from a failed septic system, or from runoff, say carrying toxic treatments used on a lawn. The flow from storms can shorten a pond’s life, although with some forethought the flow could have been redirected.

Repairing a pond can be a lengthy, complicated and expensive proposition. Since most activities would have to take place in the resource area, the work would require filing a notice of intent with the local Conservation Commission — or the ConCom, as I like to call it.

The state Department of Environmental Protection, which oversees the conservation commissions, offers something of a shortcut via what is known as a limited project, however a notice of intent is still required. Information is available online, with both DEP and the Department of Conservation and Recreation, including the excellent “Massachusetts Lakes and Ponds Guide.” Your municipal government and, of course, your ConCom can provide help.

A first step is to investigate your pond, whether it shows obvious signs of distress or not (yet). Map it, perhaps by pulling an image from the web. Check the dimensions. Keep track of the depth. Take some photos for comparison through time. Take notes about how the land in the area channels flow. Checking the temperature may provide a clue as to whether the pond is spring-fed or is filled by drainage alone. Track temperature for the general health of the pond.

Find out where your septic system is and how old it is. Stop using lawn chemicals in the vicinity of the pond. Avoid construction near the pond. Check on uses of a neighbor’s land that might impact your pond. Is there planting around the pond to hold the bank, filter pollution and shade the water?

Take the information you have gathered, including from the web, to your town’s conservation agent or a member of its Conservation Commission. Discuss what you can do and what will require the services of a consultant. If you are fortunate enough to have a pond, you should be fortunate enough to enjoy it.

At least, that’s how it looks from the White Oaks.

Writer and environmentalist Lauren R. Stevens is a regular Eagle contributor.

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