Tanks? Ponds?

I live in Texas, on a cattle ranch, though none of the cattle here are mine. The cattle here mostly drink out of artificial ponds, because as any Texas naturalist knows, there’s only one natural lake in Texas (Caddo Lake, on the Louisiana border). Thus, any pond you see is made by a human or beaver.

There’s a tank in the middle of those flowers down the road.

However, any native Texan will tell you those cattle aren’t drinking out of (and cooling off in, and pooping in) ponds. Oh no. Those are tanks. Stock tanks or cattle tanks. You sound like a city person if you call them ponds.

Our lovely small pond that sometimes merges with the creek.
I don’t know how long they stay so pristine.

I’m telling you all this because I’ve recently had a couple questions about what the heck a cattle tank is. First, stock tanks in most places are like big water troughs made of metal or plastic. People like to make them into swimming pools. But that’s a normal tank.

These are attached to water supplies and have valves to keep water at the right level. We have some here, as well. The goldfish in there have really grown, to my happiness.

There ARE fish in here.

But most properties have one or more of these in-ground tanks, made usually by damming an arroyo or other place where water naturally goes, then digging out a big hole. This is how we made our front “pond.” Our driveway is the dam.

The tank we made. Those trees grew up since we built the dam/driveway.

All the other tanks on the property are much older. Our neighbor’s son remembers swimming in them. Um, I see too many snakes to consider that. The big tanks have very tall dams around them, created by digging the holes. The dam around the front tank next door is really tall, and Fiona freaks out at it. I still don’t know why.

Looking down the ditch that drains into the big tank. Look carefully on each side to see the dam.

Because I wanted to know more about the history of tanks in Texas, I looked it up and found a fine article from Texas Monthly that fascinated me. For example, I learned that 80% of the tanks in Texas have fish in them, even ones that haven’t been stocked. I’ve seen catfish in ours!

The tank behind our house has plenty of fish for the herons, and is popular with cattle and dogs for cooling off. There’s only a dam on one side, but it’s tall!

I also learned that there are subsidies for building tanks that prevent erosion. That may explain why Texas has more of these man-made bodies of water than any other US state. I actually think that’s what my neighbor does, advise people about building tanks. I should ask, huh. My friend Phyllis confirms this; I’d call them tanks, too, if I got paid!:

My Dad always said that the government would pay farmers to put in stock tanks in the early 1900’s. So if you built a pond for your livestock you paid for it, but if you built a “tank” for your livestock the government paid for most and sometimes all of it…

Of course, as my friend Lynn also pointed out, when you build a tank, the State owns the surface water. That’s one of those weird Texas technicalities.

One thing I do know is that it’s easier to build a tank when you have some clay in your soil. In sandy places, you have to add a layer of clay so it will hold water. We have a couple of dry tanks here, too. Animals like to hide in them. See, I paid attention in my Master Naturalist classes. I obviously think tanks are cool.

Some old tanks look pretty darned natural, like the one next to Walker’s Creek cemetery.

And finally I was happy to read my favorite thing about tanks is not just mine and my naturalist friends. Tanks now attract all kinds of plants and animals that might not be there if we hadn’t put the water there for them. Long after the cattle ranches are gone, the tanks will remain, drying up in drought and refilling when there’s lots of rain.

The little front pond in a drought. Not much water (2013)

Yes, pond, tank, or whatever, these artificial watering holes will provide us with ample nature watching opportunities and provide habitat for so much life. Hooray for tanks!

Author: Sue Ann (Suna) Kendall

The person behind The Hermits' Rest blog and many others. I'm a certified Texas Master Naturalist and love the nature of Milam County. I manage technical writers in Austin, help with Hearts Homes and Hands, a personal assistance service, in Cameron, and serve on three nonprofit boards. You may know me from La Leche League, knitting, iNaturalist, or Facebook. I'm interested in ALL of you!

2 thoughts on “Tanks? Ponds?”

  1. So, Master Naturalist, how do the catfish (or other species) get into the tanks if you haven’t stocked them? Are they the invasive walking catfish type? Inquiring minds want to know!

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    1. I did forget to say that! The most common theory is that eggs stick to wading birds’ legs and they fall off and hatch. Also, flooding redistributes a lot of fish.

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