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  • Writer's pictureEric McQuiston, PLA

An Introduction to Sustainable Stormwater Management for Residential Landscape:

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

Embracing Natures Problem Child


A vision of what embracing stormwater might look like

As a landscape architect, I am captivated by the intricate harmony between the natural world and human habitation. It's a delicate balance, one that often goes unnoticed until it's disrupted. Among the many challenges we face in maintaining this equilibrium, stormwater management stands as a pressing concern. To be truly effective, it's not just about redirecting and rapidly removing water; it's about embracing a sustainable approach that not only mitigates potential damage but also rejuvenates the very ecosystems we are a part of.


The term "stormwater" might evoke images of large volumes of rainwater simply being channeled away, out of sight, out of mind as quickly and efficiently as possible. However, the consequences of this conventional approach have proved to be environmentally damaging and unsustainable. There is always someone or something downstream. It's time to shift our perspective and embrace a more holistic approach that acknowledges stormwater not only as a challenge but as a precious resource and a possible amenity. Too much rain is seen as a problem until it doesn't rain for many weeks or months! What if we could bank all that rain for use when we really need it?

Storms are a part of our everyday life

The Essence of Sustainable Stormwater Management


At its core, sustainable stormwater management revolves around one key principle: mimicry of nature. By emulating natural processes, we can harness the incredible potential of this natural resource while minimizing its negative impacts.


A few fundamental concepts lie at the heart of this approach:


1. Stormwater Capture: Rather than whisking stormwater away, we should try to capture it where it falls. Rooftops and hardscaped surfaces like driveways and walkways can be integrated with systems like downspouts, rainchains, or channel drains that direct water into constructed catchment areas. These may lead to dry creek beds or rainwater harvesting systems. Rainwater harvesting is the collection and storage of rain water for future use, rather than allowing it to run off. Harvesting systems can be as simple as decorative rain barrels to complex underground cisterns. This water can then be used for many things like irrigation or to supply a decorative water feature within the landscape. Possibly even as a life saving emergency water supply.


2. Stormwater Channeling: Think of stormwater not as an enemy to be expelled, but as a friend to be guided. Conventional storm drains can be replaced by more natural solutions like dry creek beds. These often meandering channels not only slow water movement allowing for infiltration, but also become aesthetic elements that blend seamlessly into any style of landscape. By guiding water along a carefully planned path, erosion can be minimized, and the potential for flooding significantly reduced. Dry creek beds are also easier and less costly to maintain.


A dry creek bed

3. Stormwater Retention and Infiltration: The key to sustainable stormwater management lies in giving water time to linger. Retention basins, often designed as rain gardens or wetland gardens, act as temporary reservoirs where water can gather and slowly infiltrate the soil. The benefits are twofold: groundwater recharge is facilitated, replenishing aquifers, and the risk of downstream flooding is diminished. Moreover, these features can be designed as biodiverse havens, attracting wildlife and enhancing the overall beauty of the landscape as attractive and dynamic features.


 

Balancing Infrastructure and Nature


Sustainable stormwater systems are not just concerned with safeguarding the environment; they are also about preserving lives and protecting our built environment from the ravages of nature's fury. Communities that integrate sustainable stormwater management strategies are better equipped to withstand the destructive force of storm floods. By slowing down the runoff and allowing it to infiltrate on a lot-by-lot or point source basis, the pressure on conventional municipal drainage systems can be significantly reduced. This lessens the likelihood of catastrophic flooding that results in loss of life, infrastructure and property damage, topsoil erosion, and even potential landslides.


Flooding harms both people and property
 

Imagine a community where well-designed rain gardens flank the streets, not only adding natural charm but also acting as water resource storage vessels. In times of heavy rainfall, these gardens rise to the occasion, capturing and absorbing excess water. It's a scene that conjures a more harmonious environment, where human habitation coexists seamlessly with the natural landscape.


 

The Toolbox of Solutions


Sustainable stormwater management isn't a one-size-fits-all endeavor. It's a tapestry woven from a variety of strategies, each tailored to the unique needs and characteristics of a landscape. Here are some of the tools to employ in the residential landscape:


1. Downspouts and Rain Chains: These unassuming features can redirect rainwater from roofs to specific areas, avoiding waterlogged lawns and flooding. Rain chains, in particular, transform the act of water movement into a soothing spectacle.


2. Dry Creek Beds: Function meets aesthetics with dry creek beds. These features guide water through the landscape, preventing erosion while adding a touch of natural elegance.


3. Rain Gardens: These sunken gardens are designed to collect and infiltrate stormwater. Filled with native plants, they not only aid water management but also provide habitat for local wildlife.


4. Wetland Gardens: More ambitious in scope, wetland gardens mimic natural wetlands. These lush, low lying areas filter stormwater and create habitats for a wide range of plant and animal life.


5. Rain Harvesting Systems: Harvesting rainwater for various uses is a powerful strategy. By collecting rainwater in barrels or cisterns, we reduce demand on municipal water supplies and mitigate potential harm from high volumes of runoff.


Rainwater harvesting can supply water to a pondless waterfall

The Future Beckons


The path to sustainable stormwater management is not without its challenges. It requires a shift in mindset, a departure from conventional practices that prioritize speed over sustainability. However, the rewards are plentiful. By weaving together the principles of stormwater capture, channeling, retention, and infiltration, we can create landscapes that flourish alongside and within our built environment.


What if this was our backyard?

As a landscape architect, I'm not just designing and building gardens; I'm nurturing connections. I'm bridging the gap between the human-made and the natural world, demonstrating that the two need not be at odds. With sustainable stormwater management, we embrace a philosophy that values water as a precious resource rather than a periodic inconvenience. It's a philosophy that breathes life into our homes and neighborhoods, protects infrastructure, and safeguards the delicate balance that sustains all living things.


If you would like more information on this general topic or my approaches to it, please feel free to contact me.

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