Building Jim Swanson’s Lake

building a lakeBy Bob Lusk with Mike Otto


This is the first of a three part series about a private lake building project in Texas.

Being a fisheries biologist in the private sector is fun. So is using heavy equipment to build lakes. Meeting interesting people, tackling challenging projects and helping bring lake dreams to life is a rewarding way to spend a career…for both of us.

Designing lakes, building dams, stocking fish and molding unique ecosystems is a substantial responsibility, too.

We take our fun seriously.

The little country store where I often buy fuel is also a great place to get a homemade breakfast sandwich early in the day. Made to order, eggs like you like them, sausage if you want it, choice of bread. About two bites into a fried egg, bacon and cheese on a building a lakecroissant, as my truck was filling with diesel fuel, a man approached and asked about the big boat trailing behind us.

“It’s an electrofishing boat,” was my smiling response.

“What do you do with it?” he asked.

I explained a little bit about what we do and how we do it as fisheries managers. He introduced himself. “I’m Jim Swanson. My wife and I just bought some land not far from here. Can you help us with our pond?”

That encounter started an interesting journey.

Seems the Swanson’s bought 60 acres with a nice Austin-cut limestone home in north Texas, not quite two hours from the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. For now, it’s a weekend retreat, but with business interests both to the north and south of here, the purchase made sense as a central location.building a lake

There’s an existing two acre farm pond on the property. It has catfish in it. By happenstance, I knew the former owner of the property and had driven over some of that land the past few years. Actually, it was a thriving farm decades ago. It has lain fallow for half a century or more. You could see old terraces over the entire property, where yesteryears farmers managed rainfall to the advantage of their crops…cotton, and then peanuts for a few years. Today though, native cedars invade the landscape, with some elm and hackberry trees nudging their way into the scene, trying to make their living off spent soils. Today, it was more secondary woody growth and scrub grass pasture than a farm.

The land falls gently into an eroded gulley, carved into the ground over decades of marginal farming practices. Now, the gulley was covered in a dense, impassable thicket of young trees, mostly those tall, lanky cedars stretching skyward for their share of limited sun. One spot, in the upper end of the property, has several nice pecan trees mixed with post oak along a flat spot.

building a lakeSwanson said, “This land is pretty sorry. There’s not much topsoil and the erosion is more than I thought when I bought it. Is there a chance we could build a lake here?”

As many times as I’d been over that property, I’d not thought of that. The former owner would not have done it. But, this new guy would.

I asked him, “Why would you want a lake?” Heck, that’s part of what Mike Otto and I do for a living.

It was clear he had a vision, but really didn’t know his options or how to even begin this particular thought process. His learning curve was about to become steep.

Over a cold drink, one evening in early July, 2013 we sat on his veranda and had our first discussion. After a few questions and some deeper thought, it soon became obvious that Mr. Swanson is a man of decisive thinking, with the determination to do what he wants to do. It was up to Bob Lusk and Mike Otto to start the process. He needed guidance and ideas to help a businessman visualize such an abstract concept as taking dry land and turning it into the lake of his dreams. Then, as he learned what he could do, he could make good decisions.

He wasn’t really sure where to start, so we started with his goals. Why build a lake?

First off, he didn’t see a higher or better use for that land. It needed clearing to grow something, plus the soils would need amending to make them fertile again. In his mind, those improvements couldn’t justify the cost versus the gain. Second, a lake offers a soothing view from that veranda, if a lake fit in the spot he’d like. So, a goal was the ambience of having water on the property. Another goal is to attract wildlife, especially migratory birds. The Swanson’s would love to see a variety of waterfowl passing through. There were other recreational goals, too. A cool fishing lake would be a magnet for friends and family. When a couple expects grandchildren to come see them, what better enticement than to offer some recreation? Besides, his bride could visualize a small pontoon party barge, Bimini top and some wine and cheese with her buddies, cruising around the lake. His goals were caramelizing in his mind. “We can have parties out there and have fun.” Followed by, “Plus, I think a lake will increase our property value, too.” In that part of Texas, he’s right. A sixty acre tract with a nice lake, beautiful rustic limestone home, well-kept, with some livestock, and less than two hours away from a major city? Absolutely.

It was time to take the next step of his due diligence. Enter Mike Otto. With topo maps and a peek at Google Earth, it didn’t take long to calculate the drainage area, the watershed, to be nearly 120 acres. With normal (who believes in normal anymore?) rainfall averaging 32-35 inches per year, that site would entertain a 10-15 acre lake. Swanson was excited about that prospect.

With a good grasp on the watershed, the next step was to figure out if there is enough of the right kind of clay to build a substantial dam. Otto, perched in the seat of a backhoe, commenced to digging holes to judge the soils. After the first three holes, he opened the cab’s door, hopped down, nodded his head and said, “Sometimes I’ll send soil samples off to the lab to check plasticity, but there’s not a doubt in my mind that this dirt is rich enough in good clay that we can build a good dam.” He dug several more contractor test holes and further confirmed good clay content.

building a lakeMr. Swanson was given some homework…to make sure he’d covered bases on any necessary local or state permits. Otto, the earthmover, knew he fell within federal guidelines. This was an eroded gulley and the small lake, whatever size it ended up being, would be far less than 200 acre feet of storage capacity, the magic number lake builders look for to need federal permits. Swanson contacted all the entities assigned to him and was confident of what he needed.

The next job was to figure out where to place the dam, so the engineering side of the team could get an idea of the length, height and how much dirt would need to be moved to bring this project to life. At that point, Mr. Swanson, with an assist from Otto, could begin to figure out how much lighter in the wallet he would become.

After mutual agreement, Otto dispatched Lupe Resendiz, his right hand man and excellent heavy equipment operator over to the Swanson property with a bulldozer to begin clearing the area where dam placement made the most sense. While Lupe was there, Mr. Swanson had him start pushing trees off the terraces and anywhere else he thought they needed to go away over the entire sixty acres. Adding to the initial task started a trend the whole team would see as we went. Mr. Swanson gained knowledge and then made decisions as he went. The more he learned he could do, the more he chose to do. We started with a lake one might consider normal. But, over time, it morphed into much more…that proverbial Chevrolet to Cadillac syndrome, I like to say. Mr. Swanson said, over and over, “I only want it to be the best, that’s all.”

Mr. Swanson related a story from early in his marriage. “We’d been married for a short time and decided to buy a house. Of course, the house needed furniture. I’m not too good at that and my wife is. We sat down, discussed a budget and she went shopping. She bought some beautiful furniture, just right for our life at that time. Then, the bills started coming in. I opened them, looked and things didn’t add up. It was quite a bit more than the budget we discussed. I learned a valuable lesson. She told me that she understood the budget to be a starting point.”

I had a feeling that’s the way he would look at this lake project.

With the dam site cleared Otto’s team could move in and begin the math puzzle of designing the proposed dam, calculating water flow, lake capacity, how large an overflow pipe was needed and the emergency spillway size and placement. First they drove wooden stakes in the ground where the center of the dam could be. Then, based on elevation, they set surveyor’s flags where they estimated the front side toe of the dam would be and then the backside toe. The back slope would be 4:1 and the inside slope at 3:1. The crown of the dam would be near 15 feet. Now, they were ready to look at numbers. Cubic yards of fill into the dam would be between 20-25,000…and the best clay sits 150-200 feet away. A core trench to seat the dam would only need to be two feet below natural ground level, thanks in large part to very little topsoil on top of heavy clay. Ordinarily, the core trench in that part building a lakeof the planet can be an ordeal, with suspect soils. This one would be fairly simple. Excavate to heavy clay, two feet deep, rip the soils, mix new heavy clay with just the right moisture, compact with a sheepsfoot roller and be on the way upward in no time.

As the dam was being designed, a plan was being formulated for the rest of the lake, the living part…fish habitat, spawning areas, points, islands, and underwater humps for fish to thrive and anglers to haunt. That was my job. Then, working with the earthmovers to mold and sculpt the interior of the lake as they did what they needed to do to build a proper dam would help make things as efficient as possible.

After that series of meetings and due diligence done, the Swanson’s had decisions to make. And, they had solid ideas and information to offer confidence with those decisions. It was time…time for the big equipment to come on the scene and go to work.


In the second part of this three part series, we’ll follow construction of the lake and decisions made as dirt was moved.  


Bob Lusk is a 35 year veteran private fisheries biologist and Lake Consultant, traveling the nation helping people design, build, stock and manage private fishing waters. He is also editor of Pond Boss magazine, the nation’s leading journal on pond management. He can be reached at [email protected].  


Mike Otto has almost 40 years’ experience as a professional earthmover, with a primary focus building outstanding fishing lakes. He can be reached at [email protected]