Penn State pond guru says get your water tested

April 07, 2010
University Park, Pa. -- Bryan Swistock is sort of the Dr. Phil for pond owners -- they call him when they are having problems. And this time of year, he has a lot of patients.
Spring has sprung -- the air is warm, the sky is blue -- and too many ponds and small lakes are green, bright green, and getting greener by the day.
"We hear it all the time, pond and lake owners are looking for help,"said the extension water-resources specialist in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "Folks love their ponds as sources of swimming, fishing, boating and aesthetic pleasure. But these same bodies of water can become big headaches this time of year."
Swistock has one concise message for pond owners: If you think you have a problem with your pond, you most likely do.
And you are not alone.
"We know from our surveys that 77 percent of pond and small-lake owners feel as though they have a problem they need to solve," he said. "Of those, more than half think they have too much algae and aquatic plant growth, which is really a reflection of water-quality problems."
Ten percent of pond owners experience water-quality problems so severe that they experience fish kills. "That's when they realize they have to do something," Swistock said. "If many fish die, you have a nasty, smelly mess that can't be ignored."
But what to do? First, have the water tested. It may seem obvious, Swistock noted, but apparently it's not. "While their ponds may be important to them for a number of reasons, our studies have shown that very few pond owners ever have their water tested by an accredited laboratory. But that's really what needs to be done to start dealing with water-quality problems."
To serve these pond owners in need, Penn State's Agricultural Analytical Services Laboratory recently launched a pond-water testing service. Free test kits are available at many county Cooperative Extension offices, but there is a fee required when water samples are sent to the lab.
Two test packages are available. The Basic Pond/Lake Water Package ($42) includes essential tests for assessing water quality. The Basic Pond/Lake Water Package Plus Bacteria ($70) includes tests from the basic package plus detection of E. coli bacteria. E. coli testing is recommended for ponds and lakes that are used for swimming, boating or other recreational activities where there is close human contact with the water.
Both packages include tests for pH level, total dissolved solids, nitrate-nitrogen, alkalinity, aluminum, iron, manganese, phosphorus, sulfate and hardness.
Swistock explained that these test kits are really meant for ponds and lakes larger than about one quarter acre. They are not intended to help diagnose problems in very small backyard ponds, which are managed more like an aquarium.
After pond water is tested, test results and recommendations to address water-quality problems are provided by the lab. But the resolution of water-quality problems is rarely as simple as just applying algaecide or other aquatic herbicides, Swistock pointed out.
Although a professional pesticide applicator's license is not needed, permits to use these chemicals still must be obtained through the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. Effective alternatives to chemical controls include reducing nutrients entering the water, adding beneficial bacteria, using barley straw to reduce algae growth and even stocking certain kinds of fish to consume excess vegetation.
"Pond owners must remember that their body of water usually is connected to groundwater or surface streams by some sort of outflow, so whatever they do to their pond can have downstream ramifications. They must act responsibly."
To learn more about Penn State's new pond-water testing service, visit the Agricultural Analytical Service's Laboratory online at, call 814-863-0841 or send an e-mail to
  • Many ponds suffer from excess growth of aquatic plants and algae.

    IMAGE: Penn State

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Last Updated November 18, 2010