Building a pond for your Montana home

Posted on 08 March 2016

Thrilled at the prospect of retiring from his hectic job and lifestyle, John made plans to move to Montana.  Part of his dream included a fishing pond near his new home where he and his grandchildren could share special times during annual summer visits. 
To get his project rolling, John called a contractor who promptly dug a large hole. John filled the hole with water diverted from a stream running through his property. Two weeks later, all the water had evaporated or drained into the ground, leaving a large mud pit instead of a pond. Previously friendly neighbors now avoided him, or wrote threatening letters calling him a water thief. He received letters from the state asking for proof of water rights and other required permits.  Instead of having a serene water amenity, John was frustrated as his dream pond became a nightmare.
Water's magnetic power draws us near.  Water adds to the value of a property and affords recreational opportunities.  But water amenities are a big responsibility and John was not aware of the responsibilities and legal requirements for owning a pond.  A better investment of John's time and money may have been a wetland or stream restoration project that attracts wildlife and creates beautiful natural areas, or enhancing a seasonal pond that requires less water while still providing an attractive water feature.   
How can you avoid being like John?  


Before beginning any project, set clear and realistic goals and do your homework.  A combination of property features, water access and water rights all determine the feasibility of water projects.  If not properly designed, constructed or maintained, ponds can cause serious problems for rivers, streams and wetlands.  Water pollution, invasive species, and lowered water levels are just a few troublesome issues posed by constructed ponds. It is crucial to hire an insured and bonded professional with ample experience to assess the potential hazards of installing a pond.  A typical pond will lose two acre-feet of water to evaporation each year for every acre of surface area. (One acre-foot equals just less than 326,000 gallons). Look for professionals who specialize in water-conserving design techniques.

Answer these questions before moving forward:

Do you have options for a water source?

Do you have or can you obtain the water rights?

Can you obtain the proper permits?

Have you considered the costs of liability for your "attractive nuisance"?

Are you prepared for long term maintenance obligations?

Have you determined the legalities of stocking the pond?

Are you certain that the pond will not alter the natural water supply to the area?

When you can answer "Yes" to all, your project may legally proceed.  

Many newcomers, as well as longtime residents are unaware of water laws and regulations that govern Montana's water use. Water in Montana actually belongs to the state.  The Doctrine of Prior Appropriation (first in time, first in right) governs the allocation of Montana's water resources.  You may or may not be able to obtain legal rights to water needed to fill a pond.  Surface water rights and ground water rights are different. In some areas, Controlled Ground Water Areas and Closed River Basins restrict certain types of new water rights due to water shortages.  Contact your local Department of Natural Resource and Conservation (DNRC) office to learn more about water rights in your area.  

Contact your local Conservation District, Water Quality District and county offices to discuss your proposed project and local laws that pertain to construction activities on your property.   The stream flowing in your backyard may actually be an irrigation canal.  Certain restrictions apply to what you may do in or near streams and irrigation canals.

A new law requires private-pond owners with fish-stocking permits that are 10 years old or older to renew permits every 10 years.  Contact Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (406) 444-7319 or if you have an un-renewed pond-stocking permit that was issued before January 1, 1998.

For more information:

"A Guidebook for Montana's Ponds" Montana Watercourse. 994-1910 or  

"Water Rights in Montana" DRNC (406) 444-6610 or .   

"Stream Permitting Guide" DRNC (406) 444-6610 

Montana Watercourse fosters stewardship of Montana water resources through water education materials.  The organization is housed on the MSU campus as part of the Montana Water Center. 

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