Just Add Water

By Steve Maynard

YMCA Camp Wakonda in Ash Grove, Mo., has good bones. This was my impression as I drove home after an investigatory trip. The buildings were sound, the pool and water system were new, and the grounds were what one would expect to find in the Ozark Mountains—thick hardwood forests, steep and rocky terrain, and plenty of water flowing through the property. A 1-acre farm pond sat on the most recent 18 acres added to the 80-acre existing property. The district executive told me that someday that spring-fed pond could be converted into a lake. It seemed like a distant pipe dream; little did I know how soon things would change.

Eight months later, while working on a large landscaping project, I mentioned to the excavation contractor that the camp was considering expanding the pond; I asked if he would he be willing to take a look and give me his opinion on the feasibility of the project. As we drove out in the utility vehicle, I explained the benefits that a lake would bring because the location is right at the entrance of the camp and would really provide a “wow” factor for returning campers and parents. As he surveyed the terrain and the soil content, his initial estimation was positive—the topography already lent itself to the project, and the soil seemed perfect for retaining water. The original pond had been dug with a mule dredge about 100 years ago and held water perfectly. The next response surprised me even more. He thought he could complete the project for about $150,000! That figure was well below the numbers I had heard from similarly sized projects. Now that pipe dream was beginning to have some merit.

Exploring Funding
As part of a nine-branch association, my group needed to request approval from the executive board to begin soliciting donations. The board wanted to be sure the benefits outweighed the cost and that the funding would be complete prior to the start of the project. Working with our branch board chair and district executive, we put together a budget booklet and presentation. One of the additional selling points was that the new dam would also serve as the new camp entrance, replacing the failing single-lane, box-culvert bridge built in 1953. With all of the bases covered, we received approval and could now explore funding options.

“Good things come to those who wait” and “Patience is a virtue” are adages that don’t usually apply to me, but in this case there were so many other opportunities to work on at camp that the lake was not near the surface. Then an email arrived regarding a capital-improvement grant being offered by the YMCA of the USA. The application process was relatively easy: put together a project budget and description, hit “send,” and wait. The budget included the excavation, dam and spillway construction, dock, and aeration system. It was another 6 months before we received word that we were selected to receive a $90,000 capital-improvement grant. This would not cover the $186,000 budget, and one of the grant requirements was a dollar-for-dollar match to grant funding. Camp Wakonda is located 30 minutes outside of Springfield, Mo., where O’Reilly Auto Parts is headquartered, and we were blessed to have had Ryan O’Reilly attend camp as a camper, counselor, and program director. He and his wife Brandi were willing to match the grant and provide the additional funding to cover the $6,000 additional costs. The dream was quickly becoming a reality.

Proper Permits
Next was the permitting process. Since the new dam would be less than 35 feet high, we did not need an additional permit, but since the dam would impact the course of a registered waterway, we had to submit a permit request to the Army Corps of Engineers. Travis Miller of Miller Engineering serves on the Camp Board of Advisors and took on this challenge. Working with the local corps office, he had the permit submitted and approved in 8 weeks. Waiting was the hardest part, as the time seemed to drag as we watched the weather get colder and the window of opportunity get smaller. When the permit arrived, it was time to move.

Sawing Logs
A call to Custom Timber Harvesting set a date to begin removing the big timber to be sent to the mill. Some of those saw logs would be milled into rustic clapboard siding for the repurposed pool house, which made it look more like the functioning nature center it is today. Christian County Emergency Response Team had an army of volunteers with chainsaws and skid steers that descended upon the remaining forest and cut 40 cords of firewood, which was distributed to those in need last winter. If we had to remove 8 acres of trees, we wanted them to go to good use. The tree removal began in November with the arrival of Lafollette Excavating’s heavy equipment and ended in the first week of January. The weather cooperated for the most part, and there were only two days that were too cold to run the bulldozers and backhoes. The crew of four worked from January through the first week of April to complete the excavation, dam construction, spillway construction, overflow box-culvert installation, road construction, and hydro-seeding.

Nine Days
The plan seemed simple, but I am grateful in working with a contractor who had constructed over 100 ponds and lakes. The existing pond would remain with its earthen dam in place until the new lake was complete; then the dam would be removed, and the water and fish would flow into the new area. Another goal was to have the water level of the new lake exactly the same as that of the old pond so the shoreline would remain the same. Sounds easy, right? After the area was stumped, the outflow from the pond was dammed up completely to allow installation of a 10-foot drain pipe on the very bottom of the new lake bed as the water from the old pond flowed through the new lake bed. The drain pipe was long enough to allow for the dam to be built directly on top of it, so the water could flow out of the pond and under the new dam. Next, layer upon layer of dirt was moved from what was a wooded hillside to create the new dam and roadway. Each layer of native red clay was mixed with bentonite clay and compacted to prevent leaks until the dam reached 30 feet high and 300 feet long. With the dam and road complete, the pond was once again dammed for a brief period while the pipe was cut and capped. Then came the day we had been waiting for—removing the old dam and filling the new lake. As the excavator grabbed a huge chunk of the old dam, a tidal wave of water, fish, pollywogs, turtles, and silt flowed into the new lake!

Original estimates of time based on the flow rate of the supply spring were as much as 2 months. Our online contest to guess the date and time to fill was won by a longtime camp supporter who won a week of camp for one of her daughters. The new 5-acre lake—25 feet deep in some sections—took only 9 days to fill.

For Best Results
My recommendations from experiencing the process:

  • Develop a solid plan, engaging as many stakeholders as possible: engineers, contractors, board members, zoning commissioners, road department, etc.
  • Work with an experienced contractor with whom you are comfortable. In our case, their knowledge saved us thousands of dollars and weeks of time during the process.
  • Have your finances in order, with all the funds needed in the bank prior to beginning construction.
  • Have an engineer assist with your application and submit it as early as possible. 

Happy lake building!

Steve Maynard has been in camping for over 20 years, working at camps in Connecticut, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Indiana, Michigan, and Missouri, and serving on the long-range planning committee for the Girls Scouts of the Green & White Mountains. He has worked for two major ski resorts, and also as a contractor, general contractor, project manager, and community manager. He is currently the camp director at YMCA Camp Wakonda in Ash Grove, Mo.