Friday, November 4, 2005

Create a water wonderland

Water features that brave valley winters

Water feature design by International Stone, Boise, Idaho. Photo by Kara Hill

For the Express

The soothing harmony of water tumbling from rock to rock, the clean lines of stones complimented by rivulets of water, even the added moisture in the air lends multi-sensory interest to the ambiance of any landscape; it is no wonder water features are so popular.

Unfortunately, replicating nature in its beauty, sound and atmosphere becomes difficult as the days grow cold and winter settles in. The soothing illusion quickly vanishes when a water feature is emptied, leaving a nonfunctioning eyesore until a layer of snow covers the concrete, pumps and liners.

There is another option. Water features that run year-round can be constructed to withstand even the Wood River Valley's chilly winter climate. They require a deeper, larger pool so water does not freeze solid and use specialized equipment, including a wet-well pump and surface or underwater aerator.

"Building water features that circulate water year-round is not a do-it-yourself project for the average homeowner," Brian Ross of Webb Landscape explains.

The pool depth must be below the natural water table so the wet-well pump can pull ground water up and circulate it through the system. Ground water flows from the pool through a manmade stream and is returned to the valley's water table. The depth of the water table varies from location to location. Homeowners near the Big Wood River may only need about four feet in depth for such a pond, while other valley locations would require significant digging.

Aerators are used to circulate water in a large pool, helping to check algae growth so the surface does not end up green and unsightly. It also helps fight freezing.

"The biggest issue is keeping the water moving through the system," Ross notes. "We have built water features like this in the valley that work without problems, though they do require a little more maintenance, like breaking ice off a floating aerator when needed."

There are, of course, benefits and drawbacks to installing a year-round water feature.

For some, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks of expense and maintenance. Ross explains that some who opt for the year-round water circulation and large, deep pond primarily want to have fish, and the water depth and added aeration help fish thrive throughout the winter. Water flowing down the rocks often freezes, as in nature, lending a more natural appearance. Those who have seen how beautiful a frozen waterfall appears understand the desire to incorporate a similar scene outside a private residence.

Many homeowners add water features for the pleasant sound, often depending on the flowing water to drown out less pleasant sounds, such as traffic. Trees can dull that Highway 75 drone, but once the leaves have fallen the sounds return with a vengeance. A year-round water feature won't leave the homeowner defenseless against such noise pollution.

Ross emphasizes that year-round water features are not for everyone. It requires a lot of space and a homeowner willing to take on a large-scale landscaping project. Homeowners should also consider the added maintenance and energy expenditures after the initial cost of installation before leaping into such a project.

Water features also require the right location to look as if they were crafted by nature long before the house was built. Natural stone water features look best when installed on existing slopes with the right change in elevation required for a waterfall. If no natural slope is available, plenty of space is needed to create an elevation gain that doesn't appear contrived. However, if the location is flat, one need not despair. Ross says columnar-drilled rocks can be used to create a fountain effect that has the same pleasant sound and similar visual effect.

As with all landscaping, patience is required for the foliage to creep around the stone to appear nature-made. Where there is water, there is greenery, and nothing looks more unfinished than a water feature surrounded by barren soil.

The wait, the cost and the extra maintenance will, in the end, provide years of year-round pleasure and spectacular scenery in one's own backyard.

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