Flora, Fauna, Friend, and Foe

By Randy Gaddo

When I first became a parks and rec director in a town of about 35,000 in Georgia, I had little experience caring for municipal ponds and lakes; however, as fate would have it, there were quite a few of them in or associated with the parks inventory.

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So I had to become an on-the-job student of water-resource maintenance. It took me a year or two of seeing the different cycles that ponds and lakes go through, depending on weather, people, fish, fowl, animals, and other factors that impact water-resource quality. But after a while, I began to see that flora and fauna can be a friend or foe to lakes and ponds, and it was up to my staff and me to protect the water and surrounding areas against all enemies, foreign and domestic.             

In this respect, Guy Goldsmith and I have much in common. He is the parks and rec director in North Liberty, Iowa.  We’re both north-central American farm boys with knowledge of only simple country ponds and lakes when we first started in parks and rec. Neither of us thought much about maintaining ponds; we just enjoyed fishing and swimming in them (except for those frequented by cows).              

Goldsmith has been the director in North Liberty for 21 years. He has literally seen the formation of all 10 of their city-owned ponds and lakes, as well as several others that are still owned by developers or homeowners associations; he expects those, too, will end up in his inventory someday. Actually, all of the current city-owned ponds were “donated.”           

When he took the position circa 1997 (same year I did), North Liberty’s population was under 5,000; now it’s at 18,500 and counting. “I had the luxury of growing with the city, and as we got bigger, I learned as we grew. Now I know exactly what to do if we get a new pond,” he says.

Stocking And Dumping Fish
The ponds and lakes in North Liberty are between two and 15 acres, and all are actually stormwater-runoff retention areas, as are ponds in many municipalities. They range in depth from a foot at the shoreline to several feet in the middle. Through the years, Goldsmith has been closely involved in the process of producing standards that developers must follow when constructing ponds, with long-term maintenance in mind.         

Goldsmith and his six full-time and 12 seasonal maintenance staff members do the full range of parks and rec maintenance jobs, including caring for ponds. As he notes, they are jacks of all trades. However, one of the first calls he makes when getting a new pond is to the state’s department of natural resources (DNR).             

“We call DNR to help stock fish, which helps keep the ecosystem balanced and provides recreational opportunities at the same time,” he says. DNR requires that any pond or lake it stocks must be opened to the public. “We start out with bluegill, large-mouth bass, and channel catfish, and DNR will come back every two or three years to restock the catfish because they don’t reproduce as easily.”           

One of the prevalent problems Goldsmith says he’s encountered is people dumping foreign fish into the ecosystem.  For example, people dump shad—probably leftover bait—into the ponds. “If shad get dumped, they reproduce very quickly and will deplete the food sources,” he explains.          

People will often dump exotic fish they have bought and then tired of or can’t take care of—so a quick trip to the local pond gets rid of the problem and appeases their conscience at the same time. In their mind, they saved the fish, releasing them back into the wild.              

At one of the ponds for which I was responsible, someone once dumped at least one freshwater piranha into the most highly used pond, and three youngsters caught the fish. It caused quite a stir. My staff wasn’t sure how long it had been there, but it was more than a foot long, so imagine how many native fish this foreigner probably consumed.

Where The Stormwater Goes
For the above issue and others in which the public has—intentionally or not—had an adverse impact on water resources, Goldsmith notes that informing the public is the key. “Education, it comes down to education,” he says.  “We do this in many media; for example, we have a public-access TV channel where we can provide information about such things.”              

The agency is constantly informing the public on stormwater control. “Everything comes from the street,” Goldsmith says. “These are all stormwater-runoff ponds, so grass clippings, trash, fertilizers, and oils from vehicles all run down the curbs into the stormwater drains and on into the ponds.”              

Many people—well, OK, probably the vast majority—don’t give much thought to this. They either don’t know what those funny-looking holes along the street are for, or they do but don’t hesitate to hose their grass clippings (and fertilizers) into them. They certainly don’t think about where it all goes after that.             

On the day I talked to Goldsmith, he was preparing for a meeting that evening on a new stormwater art project. “This year we will start a program with local youth and adult artists to paint reminders on the stormwater-intake drains along the streets,” he explains. “The paintings will depict fish, fowl, animals, or other aquatic themes they come up with to help remind people that all these things are impacted by what goes into those drains.”            

Aquatic Weeds And Algae
Aquatic weeds and algae are also prevalent problems that pond managers face. Goldsmith notes his agency does stock grass carp, but with some reluctance. “There are two sides to grass carp,” he says. “Some say they have great success with weed control, but others say that the carp stir up the mud and sediment, which will lead to algae blooms, although we haven’t seen that.”             

Sterile grass carp do one thing prodigiously; they eat aquatic grasses. Carp can grow to be quite large, and when they swim, they do displace a lot of mud; in a shallow pond you can sometimes follow their progress by the mud trail. They eat and grow and have a life span of 10 to 15 years or more; they are sterile, so do not reproduce. However, their eating capacity diminishes as they get older, so harvesting large ones and restocking with 8-inch youngsters on a regular basis ensures that weeds are being eaten.       

Pond managers not schooled on the topic often think that adding grass carp will solve all the aquatic weed problems; some errantly think it will make algae blooms go away (yes, I was one of them).

However, before investing in carp it is important to know what they eat and what they don’t, as cautioned by experts writing in Pond Boss magazine (www.pondboss.com). This magazine can be a great resource for parks and rec professionals who want to stay up-to-date on pond and lake management. The magazine’s website includes free articles with a wide range of information pertinent to water-resource managers.

Grass carp get a fair level of attention in the magazine. If stocked at the proper rate, at the right time, at correct sizes, and targeting proper plant species, sterile grass carp can achieve 75- to 100-percent vegetation control in the first year, depending on severity of infestation. This cautionary note was issued in a November 2014 Pond Boss article by David Beasley, a fisheries biologist and Director of Fisheries at SOLitude Lake Management.   . 

There is a risk/reward ratio that can be favorable with a clear understanding of the fishes’ tendencies and capabilities, Beasley writes, adding that, “It is almost always human error when grass carp aren’t effective.” Grass-carp feeding habits are fairly selective. “They prefer softer, pliable aquatic vegetation,” he notes. “This desire for delicate vegetation reduces tendencies to eat most emergent and floating aquatic-vegetation species.”

As a result, certain mature aquatic plants and many of the floating algae blooms won’t be on the carps’ menu.  This can be a good thing though because those plants can provide shade and protection for fish.  “Depending on your goals and the uses of the pond, it can be important that grass carp not eradicate some floating and emergent vegetation species,” Beasley writes.  

Despite the best efforts, algae blooms in relatively shallow water are almost inevitable. Anywhere the sun can penetrate the water (generally five feet or less) and reach the bottom sediment that contains all the fertilizers and other impurities, conditions are right for the slimy algae to proliferate.            

“When we do get an algae bloom, we treat it as minimally as possible with natural enzyme products that will feed on the nutrients and help deplete the algae,” Goldsmith says. He and other staff members are certified by the state to apply these products.            

Another approach to prevent algae that people try, some very successfully, some not, is to use blue aquatic dyes to tint the water. The intent is to keep sunlight from penetrating to the bottom, which can help prevent algae proliferation. “We’ve tried it, but our ponds have shallow access along most shorelines, so sunlight gets down to the bottom, even with the dyes,” Goldsmith says. However, these dyes can be effective under the right conditions, and giving the water a nice blue hue is great for aesthetics.    

Other Intruders
However, floras in and around ponds and lakes are not the only natural impediments to smooth and easy sailing on municipal waters. There are a few fauna members that contribute a fair share of problems.            

“We do have Canada Geese problems,” Goldsmith says, but he has found that, if the staff can keep the shoreline edges un-mowed and natural, the geese are discouraged from frequenting the pond. Geese like wide-open spaces with short grass, like parks and ball fields, because they can see predators coming. Tall grass makes them nervous. Of course, this isn’t always possible in high-use parks, so other anti-goose methods must be used, but are beyond the scope of this article.            

Beavers are another vexing challenge in North Liberty along the shores of its lakes and ponds. “They will go into neighboring yards and mow down all the trees in one night,” says Goldsmith, animating the “busy as a beaver” adage. There are people in and around the city who have fur-bearing licenses and are authorized to trap the beavers.  “The problem is, if we take one out, another one moves in, so it’s a constant battle.” One consolation, at least, is the fact that taxpayers don’t have to foot the bill; the furs are the trappers’ reward for their work.            

Snapping turtles also seem to like life in North Liberty ponds; however, “One snapping turtle can eat hundreds of fish,” Goldsmith points out. Luckily, there is a person in town who can trap and sell them.            

Additional Assistance
Learning about care and maintenance of ponds and lakes through on-the-job training can be effective, but it is time-consuming and might take years to learn all the in’s and out’s. Over that time, water resources can be damaged.            

It is most helpful to seek advice from professionals. This might mean hiring a contracted company to help manage the resources and to ask lots of questions of staff members. However, if the budget won’t allow that, there are plenty of resources that don’t cost a dime.           

For example, local county-extension agencies often have qualified on-staff lake and pond experts who can address just about any problem imaginable. State departments of natural resources also may help. They can often suggest best-practices, offer the benefit of their experience, and even help develop a plan. It is wise to develop a good working relationship with these people.          

Companies that specialize in lake, stormwater-pond, wetland, or fisheries management are often willing to assist municipal parks and rec departments that don’t have the expertise to deal with the plethora of potential problems.              

An environmental scientist, Kyle Finerfrock, based in Newport News, Va., works with one such company (www.solitudelakemanagement.com). He points out that one of the costliest surprises for many community parks and rec departments can be the need for sediment removal from a stormwater pond. “It is well known that these facilities are designed to capture sediment that ultimately will need to be removed, but many communities do not prepare for the magnitude of expense that the projects can require,” he notes.             

Bathymetric studies must be performed by professionals in order to collect sedimentation data; simply put, the locations and depths of water and sediment are measured. However, the expensive part of the solution is the actual removal of the sediment. I experienced this sticker shock myself when I asked a pond consultant to give a rough estimate of the cost to dredge three ponds at one park that was surrounded by residential neighborhoods. Due to site complications and the need to haul sediment away instead of disposing on-site, the cost approached three-quarters of a million dollars, and that was if everything went according to plan with no weather issues, equipment breakdowns, etc. Obviously, it had to be budgeted way in advance.               

Because of the cost, the bad smell, traffic, and disruption to the neighborhoods, there was need of a plan long before the first piece of equipment showed up.            

Finerfrock notes there are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions. “Whether across the world or across the street from each other, no two ponds are physically or chemically the same,” he says. Therefore, developing a proactive, preventive-maintenance plan is challenging. However, it can be done; he suggests plans that include water-quality testing, aeration, beneficial vegetative buffers, nutrient management, mechanical sedimentation removal, and applications of beneficial bacteria. These can help keep water conditions in balance and prevent the onset of problems.         

Another important point Finerfrock brings up is that lakes and ponds are part of a larger watershed area where water is collected through precipitation and transported via a common outlet, such as a stream or river. “Lakes and ponds are one of the most critical points of interception in our watershed because they exist at locations where a lot of water is contained in a relatively small area, and the speed of discharge can be regulated,” he says. “Improving the water quality of nearby lakes, ponds, rivers, and streams will go a long way in protecting regional assets, local wildlife, and the long-term wellbeing of our local communities.”           

Finerfrock recommends checking out his company’s blog for weekly articles and updates as well as the free online knowledge bank (www.solitudelakemanagement.com/knowledge) that contains in-depth informational guides and reports.             

Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email cwo4usmc@comcast.net.