If you found your dream property, but it was only missing water, would you turn it down – especially if you could build a private lake yourself?
Most people would not.
Installing a private lake or pond is always on people’s minds, but is it possible?
Could I build my own?
How can I avoid the common mistakes that waste both time and money?
Fortunately, we’ve compiled everything you need to know into a single post.
Here’s what you should know about how to build a private lake in 9 simple steps.
1. Do research
Whatever you do, do not skip this step when you decide to build a private lake.
Although you may wish that the process was as easy as finding a spot and starting to dig, unfortunately, it’s not.
Some of the most important steps to building a private lake on your property don’t even involve water.
If you take the time to research the topic, you may discover your land isn’t suitable for this type of project.
This is what you should be thinking about before you begin the actual process of building a lake.
Before you buy:
Is this land and soil suited for a lake?
This topic is best addressed before you even purchase the land because it may change your mind about the purchase.
If you believe you have a “dream” property on your hands, then you’ll want to make sure you’ve done your research on whether it’s feasible to build a lake on the land that you’re buying.
If it’s not, you may never be fully satisfied with your purchase.
The most suitable place to build a private lake is on low lying lands.
You will also want to make sure the soil is right (see Section 3 for more).
How do existing laws impact the land I’m considering purchasing?
Landowners may be surprised to learn that the much of the water in streams, rivers, wetlands, and lakes is actually the property of the United States government.
As such, there are many rules in place to protect water, and it may affect how you wish to develop your rural land parcel.
It’s always worth noting how any rules and regulations could impact you as you build a private lake.
And if you want to know more about the top mistakes when purchasing land, see our video below.
If already purchased:
How much will it cost to build?
Budget is always something to keep in mind, especially if certain aspects of the land may make it more difficult or expensive for you to build a private lake.
Most people use $3,000-$5,000 per acre as a rule of thumb when calculating the cost of building a man-made lake.
However, without suitable soil, this could easily spike to $10,000.
Can you do it yourself?
It’s unlikely you’ll be able to do this project entirely on your own, but could you get the beginning stages started?
How much could you do before bringing in an outside team?
What type of team do I need to build?
Knowing what type of team you’ll need can be incredibly helpful later on as you hire people to help build a private lake.
If you’re a novice, it’s better to bring in professionals early on than to try to learn as you go (see Section 5 and 6 for more information).
2. Decide the function of your lake
So you’ve done you’re initial research and are ready to move forward.
Before jumping into the project take a step back and ask yourself the following:
How will you use your lake?
What is its purpose, and why do you want it?
The function of your lake will decide how you will design it.
So, before you call up contractors, you want to make sure you properly reflect on the function.
Here are some reasons that landowners build private lakes:
Increasing the value of the land
Having a scenic view
Using the lake for social activity
While these are all valid reasons, those desiring to build a private lake for wildlife reasons often severely underestimate how difficult it can be (not only to build a private lake, but also to build an ecosystem within it).
Thus, being clear on why you want your lake can allow you to do it right the first time and consult expert advice when deciding location, size, and aquaculture.
3. Evaluate your land and soil
Just about any parcel of land can accommodate a private lake.
However, not every type of soil can.
Having the right soil can make or break this type of project.
You need to evaluate whether or not your land currently has the right soil or if you need to bring in soil that’s suitable.
Clay is an especially effective soil for ponds.
Sandy, rocky, or dispersive soils are not ideal and will require you to bring in outside soil (such as clay) to build a private lake.
To get the most accurate understanding of the soils on your lot, you should commission a soil report, which is done by an engineer.
While the report will cost you some money, it will also help you better evaluate budgeting and commitment.
Building a pond can become a long and expensive process if you don’t have the right soils.
Evaluating early on – before you even break ground – can help you may the right decisions for your specific situation.
4. Do your due diligence
If you haven’t already gathered this from above, doing your due diligence on the land makes building a private lake feasible.
In fact, the research behind this type of project amounts to about half of the project itself because you cannot possibly start a project like this without knowing where it is going.
You must be informed at every single step and make sure you have the right resources available to you before you begin making decisions.
Here are some additional aspects to check into before getting started…
Rainfall and watershed:
These two elements are especially important when determining the location of your pond.
Watershed is an area of land that feeds all the water running under it and draining off of it into the body of water on your land.
Thus, if you build a pond, your watershed would be directed there.
Watershed is particularly important when it comes to the size of your lake.
When the lake is too large, there may not be enough watershed to fill it.
When it’s too small, there may not be enough room to accommodate all of the watershed.
One factor you can use to determine how much watershed there will be is your annual rainfall.
Trees can complicate the process of building a lake.
They will either wick water from the lake or cause capillaries from the backside, which may cause drainage issues.
To eliminate this issue, it’s best not to have trees around the dam wall.
This is the best way to get a clean, clear, and full lake.
While legal restrictions are constantly changing, it’s worth checking to see if there are any relevant regulations on how close your lake can be to an existing creek, stream, river, reservoir, or another water source.
Ignoring the legalities may get you sued in the long run.
You should also review your insurance policy and research permits to ensure that you understand all of the impacts of your lake.
Private lakes are a beautiful and serene addition in most cases, but it’s a long and complicated process before you get there.
Do your best to understand as much as you can beforehand.
For more on the proper due diligence when buying land, see our video below.
5. Consult a professional
Congratulations! You’ve done all the research and due diligence.
You’ve evaluated your land and decided on the function of your lake.
You’re finally at the next step and can bring in someone from the outside to help move the process along.
The first person you should talk to is a geologist.
Who better than them to tell you about the state of your soil?
You can reach out to the National Resources Conservation Service (NRSC) and have them connect you to the appropriate individual in your community.
During this phase, you may even consider doing exploratory pits to see how the soil on your land behaves.
Remember, the more information you have gathered, the better.
It increases your chances of success down the road.
6. Find the right design teams
If you think building a private lake is just a fun side project, think again!
Throughout this entire process, you’ll likely consult contractors, designers, insurance agents, operators, geologists, and engineers to determine your lake design.
And that’s before you even break ground!
There are some DIY options, but you should never be too cheap to hire the right help when you need it.
Remember, paying additional for professional help is much better than having an incomplete project or one that failed because you weren’t quite sure what you were doing.
Your primary contribution to this project is all of the research you’ve done ahead of time.
You know your land, and you know what you want to do with it.
Now, let someone else help you actually put it into action.
Fight the mentality that hiring help is sucking up your budget.
The above personnel are actually saving you money, and once you have that lake on your land, you’ll have no problem making a profit when selling.
7. Break ground
This is it! It’s time to break ground on your new private lake.
Here’s the building process (and if you want to know more about how to build a house, see our video below).
Find the right spot:
You’ve likely scoped out some contenders during your due diligence, but you’ll want a low-lying area close to a waterway or underground stream (free from any legal restrictions, of course).
When you have access to this water, you won’t require any additional water lines to fill the lake.
The space itself should be large enough to accommodate the watershed as well as any special activities you have in mind.
Decide on the depth:
You’ve already determined the size of your lake according to a variety of factors, but what about the depth?
The depth of your private lake will largely depend on the types of activities you’d like to use it for.
Fishing lakes often need a deeper reservoir than those for activities like kayaking or non-motorized boating.
Prepare your land:
While some land already has a natural sinkhole that will work as the beginning of the lake, most scenarios will necessitate an excavating contractor to help prepare the area.
The crew will prepare your land by clearing out trees, rocks, roots, and any other growths that may get in the way of building a private lake.
They’ll also build up the edges around the lake and create an artificial dam to hold water and keep it from flowing out of the reservoir.
When you build a private lake, you need to make sure that your lake has a drainage source.
Most contractors can accomplish this by installing a pipe at the base of the reservoir, and this will feed out into an appropriate predetermined area.
You’ll use this drainage pipe when you’re intentionally trying to get rid of water.
Otherwise, your lake’s levels should stay high because it’s watertight.
In the event of overflow from heavy rain or watershed, you’ll want to have an overflow drainage area on the lake’s exterior.
Addressing drainage in the early stages of building will help protect your property from damage during high water levels and floods.
This is one of the final steps in the process.
You’ll want to add back plants and other landscaping elements around your lake.
This will help prevent erosion (see #8 for more).
Consider those that thrive in moist soil as it will be plentiful near your lake.
Furthermore, you can consider adding other decorative and functional elements such as a dock for recreational activity.
8. Introduce plants and wildlife cautiously
Private lakes have a number of uses, and if fishing is one of them, then you’ll need to create a sustainable ecosystem.
However, this can be more difficult than originally anticipated.
You can read this article, Ten Tips for Building a Fish-Friendly Lake, if your primary goal for your private lake is fishing.
In general though, you’ll want to keep ducks away from your lake initially because they’ll consume any plant material you’re attempting to support.
You can install a fence, so you’re not constantly chasing them off.
Furthermore, installing a good perennial grass (ex: fescue) on the backside of the dam wall.
Covering the dam wall in grass and mulch can help prevent erosion.
You can also plant aquatics on the edges.
However, this is another instance where it would be best to consult a professional before trying to do it yourself.
You can reach out to your local fish and wildlife department to ask for advice.
Balancing an ecosystem can be difficult at first.
Taking it slowly and doing it right the first time is always the preferred alternative!
9. Monitor your lake carefully
Man-made lakes often suffer from a variety of issues.
For example, a man-made lake may have a higher level of algal productivity, higher rates of sedimentation, more water quality problems, and a smaller amount of biological diversity.
Actively working to confront this problem while avoiding issues that can contribute to an unbalanced ecosystem can help.
For example, you should never allow cattle or other livestock to walk directly into your lake.
This introduces bacteria and parasites that disrupt and pollute your lake’s ecosystem.
Building a private lake is quite a process from start to finish.
Before you even purchase a piece of rural real estate, be sure that it meets all the criteria for building a lake if you have the project in mind.
Doing the proper due diligence can save you time, money, and effort throughout the process.
For more information on buying, selling, or investing in vacant land, check out our other resources below.
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If reading this article got you interested in land investing, you can check out our article on How to Get Started in Land Investing.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.