Pool to pond as homeowners ditch salt and chlorine for urban wildlife waterholes


September 05, 2019 06:51:12

With farmers across Australia facing dust, dry creeks, and financial ruin in what some are calling the worst drought in living memory, swimming pools are often seen as a luxury.

Key points:

  • People are turning their swimming pools into eco-friendly ponds and natural pools
  • The pool will be murky for a while before aquatic plants and fish make the water clear
  • Pathogens and mosquitos do not survive and the pools do not require chemicals

Now some of the 2.7 million Australians currently living in a house with a pool are ditching the chlorine and looking at sustainable options like ponds and natural pools, saving on both resources and effort.

When Ian and Carol Stroak step out of their South Turramurra home and into their pool area, they are welcomed into a wetland oasis with fish, microbats, frogs, and ducks.

The now-retired couple were travelling across the country in a motorhome and feared their pool would suffer while they were away — until they decided to embrace the algae.

“One of the people from Ku-ring-gai Council suggested ‘why don’t you try a pool-to-pond’, and it went from there,” Ms Stroak said.

Ku-Ring-Gai Council created their Pool-to-Pond program in 2007 and believe they were the first in the country to officially encourage residents to make the transition.

Since then, the council has converted more than 100 swimming pools to wildlife ponds — an increase of about 6 per cent year a year.

Fish and plants ‘do their thing’

Once the Stroaks decided to give up the chlorine, the pair stopped looking after it.

“We didn’t really have to do anything,” Ms Stroak said.

“You turn the chlorine off, you turn the power off, the fish do their thing and the plants do their thing.”

In the first two years, the couple said the pond looked “a little pathetic” until the plants were established.

“It’s like a paradise here; it’s a lovely little world,” Ms Stroak said.

“My friends love to go down there and feed the fish and commune with nature.”

Despite the assumption that a pond would encourage mosquitoes, smelly water, and bacteria, the water stays clean thanks to aquatic plants.

Impurities are absorbed and harmful bacteria destroyed by natural water organisms.

“We’ve had it tested for pathogens and mosquitoes — neither of which have ever flourished,” Ms Stroak said.

“And I can attest the water tasted okay the other day when I fell in and didn’t get sick.”

From chlorine to fresh water in Broome

In the northern West Australian town of Broome a similar transformation has been completed, but with swimming encouraged, rather than left to accidents.

Three years ago, ABC Kimberley feature reporter Ben Collins began the conversion of his family’s chlorinated saltwater pool into a natural freshwater swimming pool.

“It felt like a big gamble to put rocks, plants and fish into our backyard pool which is an essential part of survival here in the tropics,” Mr Collins said.

The motivation to take the plunge came when wet season rains diluted the pool’s salt and chemicals, turning it green and making it possible for plants and fish to survive.

“The pool shop said we needed to spend another $200, and I thought, ‘Let’s give this freshwater idea a go’,” he said.

With swimming in mind, Mr Collins also modified the existing filtration system, depowering the chlorinator and swapping the sand filter for a bead filter more commonly used in aquaculture.

“We run the filter, pool vacuum and skimmer box pretty much as per normal,” he said.

“But the aquaculture filter uses bacteria to help keep the water clean.”

Swimming with fish not for everyone

His pool also had a troubled beginning with murky water and struggling plants.

“It took about a year and a half before the water stayed clear all the time, and the plants really started to flourish,” Mr Collins said.

Now he said he would never go back to a traditional saltwater pool, although he admits it is not for everyone.

“I love the way dragonflies, birds and fish all make their home in and around the pool,” he said.

“My boys love swimming and even snorkelling in the pool, but my daughter prefers more of a resort-style pool and refuses to swim with the fish.”

Natural pool in Mullumbimby

In Mullumbimby, on Australia’s east cost, comedian and author Mandy Nolan sidestepped the transition process by building an eco-pool in the first place.

An eco-pool, also known as a natural pool, does not use any chemicals and stays clean by keeping the water moving.

“[We wanted] to create something that is an ecosystem, where the footprint is actually positive on our landscape and not negative,” Ms Nolan said.

When building their home, Ms Nolan and her husband decided to go with a natural option.

They dug a hole and filled it in with cement, natural rock, water grasses and lotus flowers.

“When the pool was first put in, it was a mud puddle for quite a long time because of all the disturbance,” Ms Nolan said.

“I thought, ‘Oh my, we have spent all this money and we have a giant festering mud pond’.”

But after eight weeks, the pool transformed to sparkling clean water.

“I woke up one day and it was crystal clear overnight. It’s phenomenal,” Ms Nolan said.

“It has a waterfall that runs all the time. That’s part of the process that keeps it clean, that it is constantly moving.”

Ms Nolan said the pool costs less than a standard chemical pool, and despite having to run the pump 24 hours a day, solar power means it costs less that $5 a week.

The family is required to occasionally top up the pool when the water evaporates, but reliance on a rainwater tank again keeps costs down.

“It is used all the time in summer and even when you’re not swimming, the rocks are inviting for kids to play around,” Ms Nolan said.

“My daughter Ivy has been playing over by the waterfall with her dolls today.

“Even though she is not swimming in it, it’s like a little fairy garden for her.”

Watch The Pool on ABC TV Sunday September 22 and 29 at 7:40pm, or on iview.

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