Frogs Kept Jumping Into Her Backyard Pool, So She Turned It Into A Habitat

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Twelve years ago, Alexis Friesen discovered that her backyard pool in Penticton, B.C. was starting to house some surprising guests.

Some time before, Friesen had drained the pool's chlorinated water to curb its toxic impacts on small backyard species. After that, Pacific chorus frogs made the freshwater within her tarp-covered pool their pad.

Rather than call animal control, Friesen, a wildlife biologist, decided to convert the pool into a wetland habitat for local, at-risk critters.

Over many years Friesen nixed the drainage system, levelled the pool with river rock, sculpted the sides with sand bags, filled in the gaps with natural soils and added pond water. Now, everything from long-toed salamanders and garter snakes to bats and great blue herons are flocking to the natural habitat.

UBC forest and conservation sciences professor John Richardson deems Friesen's at-home wetland "interesting" and "slightly odd" but sensible from a biological perspective. "I don't think there are any real problems with the idea, other than if they are not managed well one can end up with mosquitos," he wrote in an email.

Aside from the odd trouble-making raccoon, Friesen says her new wetland tenants are low-maintenance and water-efficient. So far she's invested about $5,000 in the project, and the biologist is not stopping there. Friesen is planning a complete transformation for the half-acre lot, including extra vegetation surrounding the pond and refuge for small species to hide from predators.

alexis friesen penticton pool

Friesen, who currently works for the Okanagan Nation Alliance in the natural resources department, hopes her story inspires other homeowners to create spaces for neighbourhood critters. She says 85 per cent of the Okanagan's wetland habitat has been lost to human development.

The biologist agreed to answer some questions about her pool-pond project for curious Tyee readers. For more hands-on info, she also recommends these web resources.

How did you come up with project?

"I bought my home in 2000 with a pool in the backyard. I opened the pool the first year (late July) and also the following year -- the last year my pool was filled due to the amount of wildlife killed by the chlorinated water.

"The frogs came to the water to breed, jumped in, and it was highly toxic water. [The chlorine] killed about fifteen Pacific chorus frogs. As a result, the pool was not opened in 2003, and a plethora of wildlife made the water that accumulated on top of the tarp their home. A dream of making the pool a permanent pond thus blossomed.

What is at stake? How do you hope this project will impact wildlife in urban and suburban areas?

"Okanagan wetlands are in peril, as over 85 per cent have been lost due to human activity. My house is built on water. Kelowna is built on a wetland. So many people put soil on valuable wetlands, displacing a lot of species.

"As a result, species like Pacific chorus frogs are becoming rare. They need the water to reproduce. If it's not there, they become at-risk. They're important because they are indicator species of water health. People need to recognize their function is crucial to both species survival and human well-being.

"Wetland areas are vital components for maintaining plant and wildlife diversity. Studies reveal 80 per cent of wildlife are directly dependent on wetland ecosystems; therefore, extensive, healthy wetland systems are critical, and habitat restoration and creation is of utmost importance. Projects like these create habitat and create a home for frogs."

What did you do to convert your pool into a wetland? Can you describe the steps that you took?

"Through countless hours of research, I finally had a plan and saved enough money to initiate the project. I actually had a pool expert come in; an electrician, a plumber and I removed the sand filter. I detached everything. The drain that I had at the bottom of the pool, we smashed it. This was done [around] five years ago.

"In 2013 the transition started; three truckloads of river rock made their way via countless wheelbarrow loads to fill the deep end that is now level with the shallow end. Amphibians don't need really deep water. In 2014, I ordered 500 sandbags and several loads of sand to start filling bags by hand. My dad and I spent countless hours filling bags and carting them into the pool to create a 'stepping' effect. These steps were needed in order to put in rocks and properly positioned plants to provide habitat and cover.

"Vegetation is extremely important because the amphibians will attach their egg masses to pieces of plants. Once this was finished, several loads of soil were brought in to fill in the gaps of the 'steps' to make it flat. Last year, I filled up the pond [with water] so that it would be able to sit for a good six months prior to the amphibians inhabiting it. Amphibians don't like clean water."

What has public and neighbourhood reaction been like? Would you recommend this kind of project for others?

"Fantastic, although I am sure there are some individuals that think I am nuts to give up a swimming pool. And yes, I would recommend this project to others, hands down.

"Anybody can do this, whether you're a biologist or not. It's not hard to create some type of water body that can attract [wildlife]. In the city, you could do some small water features. It's so simple.

"Follow some of the steps that I took, but it doesn't have to be at the scale that I did it. And if you have kids, what better way to teach kids, educate children, and get them excited about [nature]. There's so much value in doing this, it's incredible."

How have current weather conditions impacted this project?

"The heat is making the water evaporate quickly -- the pond liner is black and hot. This once again stresses the need for vegetation and landscaping in and around the pond. In addition, my future plan is to feed the pond with ground water, so I do not have to fill it with the garden hose [which is] treated water.

"South Okanagan [is] a semi-arid desert with water restrictions, especially this year. So, why not utilize that water that's going down your drain and create some habitat?"

What have been some success or challenges regarding the project?

"I turned a dream into reality. Isn't that what life is about? Money was the main challenge, but isn't that always the case? However, where there is a will -- or shall I say passion, there is a way."

This was first published in The Tyee and is reprinted with permission.

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