Water is one of the holy trinity of resources in an urban ecosystem, alongside biomass, and flora and fauna. Rick and I have wanted to add a pond to the grounds at Mezzacello for a few years now. We’ve experimented on a few iterations, and spent a lot of time and energy studying the best, most effective way of capturing, holding and using water in an urban lot. Over time we settled on using 300 gallon Intermediate Beverage Containers (or IBC). Those large, white plastic cubes contained in a steel frame that have a nozzle at the bottom. You see on the backs of semis or at construction sites and they are often used to ship large amounts of various food grade liquids in bulk. When you create a foundation (you need a foundation – a full IBC can weigh 2,100ibs or 953kg) and then build up a few courses of concrete cinder block so the nozzle is elevated, you have a very useful rain barrel. I have three of these IBC rain barrels on my property and they work great for harvesting rain water efficiently. I even added an adapter that allowed me to attach garden hoses so I can control water flow. I’d like to have more water pressure, but they need to be higher. That’s for another post. So about my aquatic ecosystem. We knew we wanted a water feature, and we have tried various forms. All of them were partial successes and ultimately complete failures. We had the idea, and it was solid. Where we failed was in the scale of the commitment to a sustainable aquatic ecosystem.
I started with a 50 gallon plastic pond liner from Lowe’s. You know the one that every suburban yard has that has a small pond. It was a lovely feature, but far too small to support life. It was too hard to keep clean, too small for more than two ducks swimming and would not support fish and smaller amphibians. Plus the fish and amphibians were easy prey to herons and racoons. After that, we tried a couple of iterations of 25-gallon brick mortar mixing tubs set into the ground. These mixing tubs had modest dimensions; 36″ long x 30″ wide x 10″ deep. I dug a series of holes in the ground and set these tubs into the ground so their tops were flush with the ground. They were simple, deep enough for the ducks to dunk their heads, but again would support no life and did not have a biofilter to keep the ecosystem from becoming septic in a two-week timespan. They also had the unfortunate effect of causing several ducklings to drown on July 4th weekend. Frightened by the fireworks, the ducklings jumped in the water seeking instinctive safety. But because the artificial, steep sides were impossible for the ducklings to climb out of the water, and I was not watching overnight, seven of them drowned. I shed a lot of water in tears at that foolish mistake.
I even tried several two-gallon steel watering dishes filled with water for the ducks to drink out of and occasionally for them to sit and splash. One duck splashing at a time. Again it was a stop-gap measure. Apart from serving as a duck and random bird bath, it supported no further life. I had also been working on a prototype for a 300-gallon aquaponics system made out of a series of modified IBC containers. I’d cut off the top of the IBC cube and the steel frame. In the base, fish would live. I had a solids pump that would pump fish waste and water out of the base and into the top which sat upon the base. In the top I had a 10″ deep bed of lava rock seeded with kale, tomatoes and spinach. The system had a timer and valve to release the water from the top and dump it back into the base, minus the fish waste. It would work during the spring, but would get too hot in summer and the fish would die, and the fish would freeze solid in winter. It seemed to work great in every YouTube video I ever watched. Then I realized all of those videos were in temperate climates, or the system was indoors. I needed a proper and integrated aquatic system, like mother nature herself would prepare. So I started researching what she needed, what I needed, and what I could build.
Being true to my mentor, Thomas Jefferson, I stepped back. I collected my notes, looked at my journals, made a list of what I actually needed this aquatic ecosystem to do for me, and started my research. I went to the library. I looked at YouTube videos. I went to parties and chatted with friends and neighbors about their ponds. I made trips to the surrounding countryside and talked with farmers. I observed actual aquatic ecosystems and the life they supported. I spent a lot of time in Franklin Park, Goodale Park, and Schiller Park making observations of the urban ponds at each of those parks. I spoke with MetroParks park rangers and ecologists at OSU. Finally, I was ready to build a pond. A fine Georgian pond that would fit discretely in my yard and still leave room for the school groups and grandkids to come and run and play.
The next step was engaging the City of Columbus Department of Health. The pond I was going to need was going to be a big pond. It was going to be a deep pond. I needed to know what the parameters were. I laid out all of my research. A manifest of my current animals and the animals I hoped to keep in my aquatic ecosystem, and how I was planning on managing them. I presented this to the city and awaited feedback. That was a whole other story.