Stormwater runoff from residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural land uses contains pollutants that can contaminate water bodies. Stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces also can increase runoff velocities and contribute to streambank erosion. Swales and buffer strips are a type of stormwater treatment composed of vegetation and a porous subsoil medium. Buffer strips are vegetated areas adjacent to a waterway that prohibit stormwater runoff from flowing directly into a water body.
The vegetation catches pollutants carried by stormwater, decreases the rate of flow and volume of runoff, and stabilizes the soil on the shoreline or bank, lessening erosion caused by runoff. A swale is a long, vegetated depression often used as a water conveyance system which is also designed to infiltrate water and remove sediment and pollutants from runoff. A swale, therefore, assists in recharging ground water and managing stormwater runoff quantity and quality. This fact sheet provides guidance on the design, implementation and maintenance of vegetated swales and buffer strips and on programs to educate the public and decision makers about installing them.
Properly designed swales and buffers protect and separate a stream, lake or wetland from future disturbance or encroachment and sustain the integrity of stream ecosystem habitats. Maintaining a buffer or swale upstream of surface waters reduces pollutant impacts from sediment, phosphorus, nitrogen and high temperature waters. Additional benefits include ground water recharge, channel protection, erosion control, aquatic and terrestrial riparian habitat, flood control and recreational and educational opportunities.
Swales and buffer, when constructed properly, can remove a series of pollutants from stormwater runoff. Water quality removal rates for are variable and depend on a number of factors including slope, width, and vegetation. The Minnesota Stormwater Manual contains relevant data on pollutant removal efficiencies.