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.
An 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.
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.