Fear Not the Swale

In her acceptance speech when receiving her recent Chesapeake Climate Action Network award, Supervisor Andrea McGimsey said this: “Just start wherever you are, and DO something.”

So we did. We had rented a skid loader for another project, and while we had it onsite we also built a bio-swale to better manage the flow of rainwater through our yard. “Swale” is a term that’s being used a lot in the ongoing kerfuffle over the Chesapeake Bay Protection Act and its application in Loudoun, so let’s start by clarifying what one is. Although we have seen the terms used as if they are interchangeable, a swale is not the same thing as a drainage ditch. Drainage ditches are what VDOT installs along the roads; their purpose is to direct water off the road surface and then down grade parallel to the road, into some larger conduit, and eventually into the bay. The purpose of such drainage ditches in residential developments appears to be getting the water away from the property as quickly as possible, before it gets anything wet.  You can see this application in a conventional Loudoun residential development here.  

swale01An actual swale of the sort under discussion here has a very different purpose – retaining the water. A swale is constructed perpendicular to grade. Its purpose is to interrupt the flow of water down a slope, slowing it down so that it has a chance to percolate into the soil. The occupant of the land benefits because the swale retains moisture to grow plants without supplemental watering, and the rest of the community benefits because it filters and reduces the storm runoff that overwhelms and sickens our waterways at the same time that it recharges our groundwater. Our swale has the added benefit of creating a level area under our clothesline.

The swale that we built is the most basic manifestation of this principle – simply a long, shallow depression cut along the contour of a slope with a berm on the downward side, like this:

Our house is built into a hillside. Those of you who have built houses here know that the final inspection for occupancy requires the site to be “seeded and mulched.” Having just built a house, we were tired. Consequently, that seeded and mulched hillside had stayed exactly what it was: a long, unbroken grassy slope, down which rainwater flowed unimpeded into the stream, then into the creek, then into the Potomac River at the bottom of the mountain. There was plenty of riparian buffer before it got there, but I’d rather keep that water up here where it’s useful for growing food. Both the problem and the process for addressing it are illustrated in the photos below.

grassy slope   digging along contour

digging along contour2   finish grade

As the post linked above describes, conventional stormwater management is centralized and requires engineering and materials to which the average homeowner does not have access; it cannot be, in other words, a DIY project. Under conventional design, the homeowner is dependent on Those Who Have Concrete and Big Machines to magically whisk the water away – and then typically must buy the water back for irrigation.

Low Impact Development design is different. Because it is decentralized, with its elements distributed across a project, individual homeowners can apply a single practice that works for their site, like our swale. Communities can pool resources to improve the water management of a common area, and – even better – developers can design projects from the ground up using Low Impact Development practices, which would both conserve our water resources and save significant costs over conventional development. These decentralized practices don’t require large-scale infrastructure maintenance, such as land-devouring retention ponds and huge concrete culverts. They can be built and maintained by ordinary people using basic landscaping equipment, enabling a diversity of small local operators and businesses to thrive.

Start where you are. Just do something. This is individual responsibility and empowerment, the antithesis of reliance on government agencies and big corporations to solve our problems. If individuals, communities and developers decided to solve the problem of our degraded waterways, there would be no need for a Chesapeake Bay Protection Act to argue about in the first place.  

7 thoughts on “Fear Not the Swale

  1. Leej

    If Loudoun cannot afford the mapping upfront, the citizens of Loudoun cannot afford the Chesapeake Bay Act at this time.

    Fairfax is already mapped and that can be a nightmare and costly for minimal return .

    Just imagine how costly this will be to Loudoun without final mapping.

    The problem is chemicals put on farms and lawns and landscaping.

    Solve that and the waterways are saved.

    This putting band aids on heart surgery.

    Why are the dems on the BOS not going after the chemical companies, instead of putting more layers of government on Loudoun Citizens for minimal benefit,  and more cost to the tax payer. Helloooo we need to save money in these extreme hard economic times. NOT EXPAND THE GOVERNMENT SPENDING UNTIL THE AVERAGE TAXPAYER CAN AFFORD IT.    

  2. Paradox13

    We have a multilayer government, with federalized responsibilities. Regulating and inspecting chemical companies is not the responsibility of the Board of Supervisors, nor should it be. Managing local development and water quality, is, and should be.

    And as for costs, I consider them well worth paying for a healthy Bay my kids’ kids will be able to play in.

  3. Epluribusunum

    and you’re right to focus on the chemical industry as a large part of it. I was just talking yesterday with someone who lives adjacent to a golf course, and the chemical inputs for golf course maintenance in particular cause horrific damage to waterways.

    Problem is, as Paradox points out, local government is powerless to do anything about those inputs. The only recourse for citizens is to lobby state and federal government to restrict these damaging practices (which also results in howls of protest that the economy will grind to a halt), or try to educate individual owner/managers about Best Management Practices and cross our fingers hoping that they will care. In many cases, unfortunately, they do not.

    Beyond trying to affect what other landowners do through government restriction and persuasion, we can do what I suggest and demonstrate in this post: Start where you are, and implement some small scale practice to (in a small way) mitigate the damage beyond our control. Not everyone is in a position to do something like this, but many of us are – especially when we act collectively.

    The other thing government can’t do is get in a time machine and undo the poor development practices that we currently are seeing the results of. So basically that’s it – we can either use the tools in the toolbox we have, or demand a new toolbox. The one thing that definitely won’t solve the problem is to deny that there even is a problem, which to your credit you are not doing. If there are aspects of the ordinance that are not well drafted or are unfair, then let’s work together in good faith to get it right.  The point of local government is to facilitate improvements to residents’ lives, and we need something that will work.

  4. alocodem

    If it means alienating independents and angering residents, and therefore losing in 2011, should the Democrats do this anyway?

  5. Leej

    It will be a problem for the politicians in the next election for the ones that vote for this unfinished act.

    My neighbors and friends in Loudoun do not want it.

    Especially if it is implemented before the next election and all the confusion and delays for their projects start happening.

    As I said we can not afford this half ass act at this time.

  6. Epluribusunum

    I think we are talking about two different things, and it would be helpful to separate them conceptually.

    First, is the specific ordinance the board is considering the best course of action in terms of solving the problem? If the answer is yes, then the answer to your question is also yes. However, I don’t think it’s clear that the current ordinance is the best solution.

    Having said that, I think it’s critical to defeat a campaign of fear and disinformation whenever one arises – so, regardless of the worthiness of the ordinance itself, the reality-based board members (and you and I and everyone else acting in good faith) are obligated to educate and inform the public about what is actually going on; after all, the residents are angry because they are being lied to and manipulated for political gain. Those individuals engaged in a fear and disinformation campaign couldn’t care less about solving this, or any other, problem (ref. claims that “our water is pristine,” or whatever nonsense words they emit). They do not set the terms of discussion for the rest of us.

  7. Pingback: Let Tom talk – Loudoun Progress

Comments are closed.