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An Ecological Approach To Stormwater Mitigation

by Larry Santoyo

The clearing of land across the landscape for farms and ranches, combined
with the constant development of commercial and residential areas, has led to
widespread problems of flooding and reduced groundwater recharge.

Water runoff is predictably accelerated by human activity. With the clearing of

natural vegetation comes the addition of impermeable surfaces (roofs, roads,
concrete, and other "hard" surfaces). Without the landscape's natural surface,
water can no longer soak into the soil; accelerated stream flow, flooding and
erosion results.

Integrated Community Design

To achieve the needed balance of natural surfaces within developed areas,
designing high density housing is one strategy that leaves a large portion of
natural area intact. Open spaces, designed as urban forests or park lands, can
be integrated throughout a community and can be successfully designed to
mitigate stormwater in an attractive and biologically functional manner.

Few strategies offer better response to minimizing flood damage than

appropriate placement of communities in relationship to the total landscape.
Appropriate placement first requires a comprehensive understanding of the
entire landscape ecology. By learning to "read" the landscape, all community
land use planning and design can work comfortably and economically with (not
expensively against ) the landscape's natural processes and topography.

Landscape Dynamics & The Hydrologic Cycle

In order for a community's stormwater action plan to effectively and efficiently
address flooding, the action must consider and compensate for the constant
subtle changes that occur in the "landscape dynamic." The action plan must
also have an enhancing effect on the hydrologic cycle.

The hydrologic cycle includes not only water; but air, vegetation, and the soil of
the landscape. Water continuously cycles through the environment as rain,
streams, and vegetation. Through evapo-transpiration, it cycles back to rain.
This action of the water cycle, together with the landscape dynamic, works to
enhance vegetation, increase air humidity and saturate groundwater.

The amount of runoff that occurs is due to various physical features. Density of
vegetation, slope, conditions and composition of the soil as well as the intensity
and duration of a given storm event will all have an affect. In areas with dense
vegetation the soil absorbs rainfall quickly and in most cases entirely. Forested
areas typically have less than 10% runoff. Urban areas (with mostly hard
surfaces) and some arid regions of the world (with sparse vegetation) have up
to 80% runoff or more.

Runoff moves through the whole landscape profile in several predictable flow
patterns. Water moves first as rainfall, then moves laterally as overland flow or
"sheetflow." Sheetflow then creates very small channels which eventually join
together forming small streams. Small streams join together forming larger
streams which join together to form rivers.

Water can also soak into (infiltrate) the soil. The water that moves laterally (to a
stream channel) under the surface is called "interflow." Interflow can also be
drawn down to create an area where the soil is completely saturated called
"groundwater." The volume of stream flow is increased when the groundwater
is saturated enough (recharged) to rise and meet the level of the stream or
when the downcutting action of the stream cuts into the groundwater area. This
contribution, from the groundwater source to the stream, is called "base flow."

Mitigation Trends
Technological approaches to stormwater mitigation have not always solved
flood problems. In many areas approaches such as detention basins, culverts
and stormwater drains have high maintenance costs and problematic results.

Detention basins, designed to control peak water flow, only delay it temporarily.
Water may be "control released", but often the released water is combined with
that of nearby tributaries causing extensive flooding over an even longer period
of time (than would have occurred without detention). Released detention
water moves quickly over the surface and doesn't soak into the soil. Without
infiltrating, this water cannot contribute to groundwater quality nor recharge
base flow.

Culverts, in almost every instance, accelerate the velocity of water flow which
causes erosion. When not properly maintained culverts are easily clogged by
accumulated silt and debris, causing further outflooding and washouts.

Stormwater drainage systems require extensive engineering, and function

solely to remove water from the landscape - making this valuable resource
completely unavailable for use. As water washes from roads and through
industrial areas, storm drains pick up and carry away concentrated pollutants.
These pollutants are then discharged directly into water courses. This
discharge is often at high velocity which also accelerates erosion, especially at
the point of discharge.

Biological Mitigation
Biological approaches use "low-tech" (and often low cost) strategies that work
in harmony with the natural landscape. One of the most successful mitigation
strategies employed in dryland ecologies around the world is to "harvest" water
for infiltration. When infiltration strategies are implemented, downstream
flooding is reduced and groundwater is recharged.

Infiltration works by intercepting overland flow, before it has a chance to cause

any downstream flood damage. Water is held, by berms and basins, until it
percolates into the soil strata. Stream flow returns as a result of saturation and
high contribution to base flow (not because of accelerated overland flow).

The frequency, volume and shape of infiltration basins can be designed to

accommodate a variety of desired effects and actions. Basins can be designed
so that they do not create undesirable conditions of mud or provide habitat for
mosquitoes. Infiltration action can also be used to increase water quality. As
water percolates through the soil, metals and other pollutants are diluted and
filtered out (partially or completely) by soil organisms before the pollutants
reach the groundwater area.
Shallow, broad-based basins, called "swales," constructed along the natural
contour of the landscape are effective means of capturing overland flow for
infiltration. In the 1930's, conservation crews constructed infiltration swales all
over the southwest. Swales catch run off water, facilitate a high growth rate for
vegetation and closely mimic a normal stormwater return rate into the soil as it
would have been before any development occurred.

A successful infiltration program would require broad-scale implementation, in

most communities, this would require a cooperative regional management
plan. Infiltration strategies are best employed as high as possible in a
watershed profile. High in the uplands the soil is well drained, the channels
small, and the volumes of water that can be expected are the most
manageable. Downstream flooding is reduced (or eliminated) and the whole
watershed benefits from recharge.

Community "EcoNomic" Development

The opportunity exists for further integrating water harvesting with economic
development. A best use of recaptured water resources would be in
community-wide planting programs of useful trees, shrubs, vines and grasses.
Some of the water harvesting structures (contour swales) can serve double
duty as pedestrian and bicycle paths. Commercial orchards, retail nurseries
and market gardens can be developed and integrated as vocational training
programs, environmental restoration, and other community service programs.

Converting Problems Into Resources

Designing in balance with the natural patterns of the landscape effectively
converts flood problems into multi-purpose community resources. An
ecological approach to stormwater mitigation may require intensive, multi-
agency planning efforts, but in the long run, would provide a highly improved
quality of life and most importantly, it would offer hope for an economically and
environmentally sound future.

Larry Santoyo is a Land Use Planner and Environmental Business Consultant. He currently
teaches at UC Berkeley. He is among the most experienced Permaculture Design
Instructors in the US and has over twenty years experience in resource protection and
natural systems management. He can be contacted through Santoyo and Associates
Permaculture Design (800) 469-5857 or via email at