How to Manage Wet Areas on Your Property
In this episode, we’re going to look at strategies for managing wet areas on your property in a way that heals the living world and cultivates abundance for people, plants, and wildlife. Often people try to drain wet areas and get the water off their property. But this causes all sorts of problems and often damages the living world and makes the land less resilient to climate change. Let’s dive into ways to manage wet areas on your property.
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In urban and even rural areas across the United States, rainfall tends to be gathered up and then moved off the land as quickly as possible.
From stormwater drains in cities to drainage tiles in rural farm fields and drainage ditches it often seems like the goal is to get rid of the water that falls naturally on the land.
And in many ways this is understandable. We’ve built our cities with large amounts of impermeable material that doesn’t give the water anywhere to go. This can easily lead to flooding if the water isn’t quickly drained.
And modern farming practices don’t generally work well with wet, flooded fields.
But there are other ways to manage wet areas that don’t rely on draining the water. That instead focus on strategies that build resilience to climate change, support wildlife, and even provide food for your family and community.
In the rest of this episode, we’re going to explore some of these strategies for managing wet areas and talk about why wet areas are important in the first place.
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People like you, who want to bring these skills home, to enjoy wildlife, grow more food, and help heal our living world.
Okay, let’s get started.
Further Listening and Reading: Growing with Nature episodes and blog posts with more information about the topics covered in this episode.
Books and Other Resources
- Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 1
- Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, Volume 2
- The Rain Garden Handbook for Western Washington
- Native Plant Salvage Foundation – Rain Garden Resources
- How to Build a Swale in the Residential Landscape
Plant List: More information about some of the plants covered in this episode.
Managing Wet Areas for Wildlife
Wetlands are magnets for wildlife. Birds, frogs, dragonflies, and so many other types of wildlife call these places home.
I started my career out as a field technician collecting samples and taking measurements in ponds, streams, and wetlands.
Since then I’ve gone on to lead and manage projects to restore these critical areas. And it’s always amazing to see the wildlife return to these areas.
On our property, we have an eroding gulley that I’ve been working to restore to a complex series of ponds, wetlands, with multiple stream channels connecting it all.
The result has been amazing.
Ducks, geese, frogs, salamanders, dragonflies, caddisflies, great blue herons, tons of songbirds, a transient beaver, and many more have all moved in or visited our new ponds and wetlands.
Plus native wetland vegetation like willows, sedges, and rushes are thriving and we will be planting more over time. The result has been the creation of habitat for all sorts of insects including native bees which love the early blooming willows.
Healthy wetlands are always filled with an abundance of life.
And you can turn a wet area into a healthy wetland.
Wetlands don’t have to have water in them all year—seasonal wetlands do a great job at supporting wildlife. Currently, our wetlands are seasonal—they go dry in early summer. But despite that, they’re still filled with abundance.
So what can you do to manage wet areas for wildlife?
A great first step is to plant native wetland plants in your wet areas. Here in the United States willows are often a great choice.
I often plant willows but other great plants native to western Washington include:
- Pacific ninebark (Physocarpus capitatus)
- Red osier dogwood (Cornus sericea)
- Black twinberry (Lonicera involucrate)
- Douglas spirea (Spiraea douglasii)
And a wide range of sedges and rushes plus other plants.
Planting native plants will add beauty to your wet-area while also providing habitat for wildlife. Creating a rain garden can be a great next step.
According to the Rain Garden Handbook for Western Washington:
A rain garden is a landscaped area that collects, absorbs, and filters stormwater runoff from rooftops, driveways, patios, and other hard surfaces that don’t allow water to soak in. Rain gardens are sized to accommodate temporary ponding after it rains and isn’t meant to be permanent ponds. Simply put, rain gardens are shallow depressions that:
- Can be shaped and sized to fit your yard.
- Are constructed with soil mixes that allow water to soak in rapidly, treat runoff, and support plant growth.
- Can be landscaped with a variety of plants to fit the surroundings.
I’ve put links to that handbook and other resources on rain gardens in the resources section of the show notes. Even if you live outside of western Washington you should still check out the handbook and other resources. Most of the information can be applied to other areas—just make sure to look for plants native to your area.
Creating a rain garden can be a great option for managing wet areas that stay small. Examples could be dealing with the water collected by your rain gutters or runoff from a driveway or sidewalk.
If your wet area is currently being drained consider digging out a depression for the water to collect in. This is part of the process of creating a rain garden. But just make sure to include an overflow channel for excess water to flow out.
You don’t want the water from a heavy rainstorm to flood your yard or house. You always need to have overflow channels. Especially since extreme storms are becoming more common due to climate change.
By letting the water pond up a bit and planting the area with native plants you will transform what was just a wet area into an abundant seasonal wetland that will attract all sorts of wildlife.
The same general approach works in large fields that seasonally flood. Try planting wetland plants like willows, sedges, and rushes. The wildlife will thank you.
Managing Wet Areas for Climate Resilience
Wetlands, ponds, and other wet areas are very important for wildlife. But they’re also important for making the land more resilient to climate change.
Drought and floods are 2 of the biggest impacts of climate change.
And draining wet areas makes both issues worse.
When you drain a wet area you’re channeling that water downstream. And when everyone does this it can cause flooding downstream.
Instead of spreading out and soaking in across the landscape the water is concentrated in downstream areas which can make flooding worse and more likely in those areas.
When I worked for the USGS as a hydro tech I got to visit all sorts of streams and rivers across eastern and central Washington. At each, I would measure the height of the water and the flow of the water.
It was a great job and I got to see amazing places that few people visit. Hidden waterfalls, abundant wetlands, and rocky canyons.
But I also got to see the impact of draining water off the land.
When the land around a river was highly impacted the result would be big pulses of water quickly moving through the system.
These spikes would happen after storms and especially when rain fell on snow.
The result would be flooding and also erosion causing the rivers to cut down into the land. All this flooding and erosion is bad for fish, other wildlife, and people. And the water quickly leaves the system making droughts worse in the summer.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
When rainfall and spring snowmelt are instead allowed to soak in the flow of water across the landscape spreads out and is slowed down.
This gives more time for the land to absorb the excess water and reduces the impact of flooding.
Instead of a big pulse of water moving through the system, you instead get what on a hydrograph looks like a broad low hill.
The same amount of water moves through the system but instead of showing up over a few days the water might take a week or even months to move through the system.
Instead of flooding and erosion, the land is instead rehydrated and fish and other wildlife have the water they need.
While I’ve been talking about this on the large scale the same issues apply on smaller scales—even in your own backyard.
Does the water from your roof, driveway, and sidewalks flow off your property or does it have space to collect and soak in?
The more you can slow water down and let it soak in the more resilient your property will be to summer droughts.
When water has time to soak in the soil it becomes groundwater. And groundwater moves far more slowly than surface water. Plus, groundwater is what your plants need to thrive.
So by slowing the water down it will stick around in the ground for longer. This reduces the impacts of summer droughts since your plants will still have access to water that fell during the spring.
And if we all did this where we live the cumulative downstream impacts would mean fewer impacts from droughts and less flooding and more habitat for wildlife.
Managing Wet Areas for People
As important as it is to manage wet areas for wildlife and climate change there is another benefit to this approach to water management.
And that is the day-to-day benefits these approaches bring to people.
When we bought our property in the summer of 2016 the middle of our property featured a dry gully covered with invasive plants that were being steadily eroded every winter.
It wasn’t a place that my family and I really wanted to be.
But today after several years of work we have ponds, multiple streams, waterfalls, wetland areas, and lots of native plants.
And my family and I love spending time in these areas.
We’ve gone swimming in our ponds and my kids love to splash around in the shallow areas. We often go exploring in our willow forests, and we’re always finding bugs, frogs, and other types of wildlife in the ponds.
Even in the summer when the ponds are dry we still go exploring these areas.
And we’re also working on getting edible wetland plants established in these wet areas. Cattails, springbank clovers, Pacific silverweed, Wapato, and many more are all great examples of native plants that can be grown in and around ponds and wetlands.
And all these native plants are edible and can provide large amounts of food.
There are other edible plants like blueberries that we plan to grow in these areas too. Blueberries will be grown on raised mounds next to flooded areas with cattails and other plants planted around them.
The point is there are lots of great food plants—some native, and some not—that can be grown in wet areas.
I often see people struggling to grow food in wet areas. The problem is they’re often trying to grow traditional food crops that really don’t like wet areas.
But there are lots of great wet-loving edible plants that would love to grow in these wet areas.
When you manage wet areas for wildlife and climate resilience you will create a place filled with beauty and abundance that you and your family will love. And if you want to you can still grow food in this area—especially if you plant native edibles.
Putting it All Together to Heal the Living World
It has been amazing to see how our land has transformed in response to managing our wet areas for wildlife and climate resilience.
Not only is the land more abundant but we’ve also created an area that our family loves to visit. And every year it gets even better.
You don’t have to manage wet areas just for wildlife, or just for climate resilience, or just for people. When you slow water down, spread it out, let it soak in, and plant native plants you create the conditions that benefit everyone.
Including all the life that share your property with you.
If you live in an urban area creating small rain gardens or small garden swales are all great options for managing water in a way that doesn’t need a ton of work.
A shovel and wheelbarrow are all you need to create these.
Just make sure you have a plan to deal with excess water. Once your rain garden or swales fill up you need to know where the water will go. A good option is to direct that excess water back to the original drainage system that already exists on your property.
The goal isn’t to keep all the water—just as much as possible without causing harm.
On our property, the original gulley flowed off our property. While our property can hold a lot more water now it still fills up and when it does the water continues off our property in the same way it used to.
This allows us to keep more water on our property without causing any problems.
Once you’ve started to change how you manage wet areas the next step is to observe and see what happens and make adjustments as needed.
I like to start with small changes and then build on those over time as I have time to see how the land responds. This way you can catch any issues when they’re small and learn from them.
And really this is a great place to start—when the rains come throw on a rain jacket and go see where the water goes. Look for puddles, and flowing water—especially water that is flowing off your property.
Then see what you can do to keep more of that water on your property.
Just start small and build from there.
I’ve put some links in the resources section of the show notes that dive into how to build rain gardens and swales. And I’ve also included links to a couple of great books by Brad Lancaster. Both books dive into specifics on ways to slow water down and soak it into the landscape. Brad lives in Arizona and has transformed his urban lot into a place of abundance through rainwater harvesting.
So make sure to check out those books and the other links in the resources section of the show notes.
And stay tuned for our next episode where we will look at micro-climates and how to get started with them.
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