Renovating rural lake in North Texas

About the Saint Jo Project

The project site was 450 acres located on the Red River near Saint Jo, Texas.  The focal point was a five acre existing lake that did not hold water properly.  The primary goal of this project was to redesign the lake for aesthetic purposes. Then install a plastic lake liner to make it hold water. At the onset of the project we did not plan to enlarge the existing lake. St Jo. Existing lake

I tell people that I have been in business for more than 40 years and I used all of my magic wands on the first day.  This north Texas project was one of the more challenging in my 40+ construction career. The intricacies of the job caused me to use almost every tool in my tool bag  because in the real world there are no magic wands.  Consulting on drainage, lake building and rural property construction is a major part of my business and invaluable when assessing the challenges associated with your project.  The first step is being able to identify the potential pitfalls of any project and then having the ability and expertise to tackle those issues. Your contractor should always be taking these extra steps and as a customer, make sure you choose a contractor that is capable of handling your project and has enough tools in his bag to conquer the obstacles. 

Problems with the Existing Lake

Draining the existing lake

The problem with the existing lake at Saint Jo was two-fold:

  1. The lake was a common design, which is fine for most livestock ponds but this lake did not complement the existing houses and other structures.  In my travels, consulting on other rural lakes and properties, aesthetic failure is the number one complaint I hear.  Overall 90% of pond, lake and tank projects fail aesthetically due to a lack of expertise on the contractor. There is a certain amount of artistic design experience that rural lake building and a true Texas retreat require.  
  2. The second problem with the existing was the inability to effectively hold water.  Water leaks on pressure.  I have seen a great many recreational bodies of water that will hold 4-6 feet of water relatively well.  However, once the depth of the water exceeds the pressure capability of the soils– the water begins to seep out.  This is what happens:  Your lake  is well-designed with an average depth of 8-9 feet. During a significant rain event, your average max depth is 12-15 feet and your lake fills up to full level just fine.  Then you notice the water level dropping quickly UNTIL the water level drops to the point where the soils have the integrity to hold that particular water pressure, 4-6 feet.  Once the water level reaches the neutral pressure point your water surface elevation ceases to drop noticeably.  This particular lake was designed to consistently hold 8-11 feet of water but would only effectively hold 4-6 feet of water.  The lake is designed to be full, so a half-empty lake ends up looking very unappealing. 

Soil Testing & Solutions

Soil testing results for this project indicated that the existing soils were not suitable for holding more than 5 feet of water.  In this situation the water holding surface of the lake site must be lined with some type of material that will hold the required water pressure.  Basically you have three choices arranged by average costs:

  1. Install a clay liner **IF** the clay can be generated on site and if your clay is suitable for the task and you have plenty of “good” material to work with.  I see a large number of these projects fail due to problems associated with one or more of the above.  Hauling clay in from off-site is almost never a good idea because of trucking costs and quality control of the material.  Many contractors will however try to talk you into this because they like to move dirt the most expensive way possible. 
  2. Use bentonite as a substitute for native clay.  Bentonite is ground up high quality clay and it is a good product.  Bentonite will work fine **IF** enough bentonite is used and it is installed correctly.  The problem with bentonite are costs associated with the purchase of the material and costs associated with proper installation.  Bentonite must be used in conjunction with soils that have at least minimum properties.  Otherwise dis-similar soils issues can arise.    When “dis-similar” soils are used, a higher quantity of bentonite must be used to compensate.  Most bentonite projects fail due to problems associated with one or both of the above.    
  3. Plastic lake liner at St. JoInstall a plastic liner.  This is the most expensive option and the only option that is a guaranteed fix.  Clay or bentonite methods can easily exceed half the cost of a plastic liner **AND** there is NO guarantee that the bentonite or clay will work to fix a lake that won’t hold water.  I have consulted on a great many failed clay liner and bentonite projects where the landowner has spent vast amounts of money with only heartache to show for it.

Completing the Lake Liner Installation in Saint Jo

A newly installed lake linerFor this project a 40 mil liner was used but that was the easy part.  The existing lake had been in place for a number of years and a large volume of silt and mud had to be removed in order to install the liner.  Moving mud and silt is always an expensive operation but especially so in this case.  Due to a shortage of dirt required to build the project, we had to dry and re-use the mud and silt.

When building a pond, lake or tank in conjunction with the installation of a plastic liner the proper method is to cover the liner with a layer of dirt. Covering the liner with dirt makes it more aesthetic and the soil blanket over the liner provides a degree of protection for the plastic liner.  Typically 18-24 inches of soil should be used on the shoreline and slopes with 6-10 inches of dirt used when covering the bottom.  On a wide flat bottom water feature covering the entire bottom is not necessary as it will silt in anyway.  This is a crucial step in a plastic lake liner installation that many contractors skip, typically because of money.Digging Mud

The reason that there was a cover dirt shortage for the project was due to underground springs and groundwater that prevented us from deepening the existing lake.  A wet spring/early summer season and the site location, at the bottom of a hill, further complicated the problem.  We factored in the dirt shortage situation into the redesign and aesthetic requirements.  Consequently every cubic yard of dirt on the site became quite valuable and careful thought was required at every turn.

In the end the project turned out very well and the landowner was quite happy.  One of the services that I build into a project is explaining to the landowner the different steps and why they must be done a certain way.  This way the landowner better understands the project and gains valuable knowledge that they can use for other projects on their land.

Adding fish structures at St. JoI hope that you enjoyed reading about this project and feel free to contact me about your upcoming project.


Nick Jones

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