Information: Information on operation and maintenance of swales has been updated. The updated information now exists on two separate pages. We recommend you utilize the information on these two pages. Eventually, this page will be redirected to the first link above.
Green Infrastructure: Dry swales can be an important tool for retention and detention of stormwater runoff. Depending on design and construction, swales may provide additional benefits, including cleaner air, carbon sequestration, improved biological habitat, and aesthetic value. See the section Green Infrastructure for stormwater management.

photo of a dry swale
Photo of a well-maintained dry swale. Courtesy of Limnotech.

The most frequently cited maintenance concern for dry swales is surface soil/media and underdrain clogging caused by organic matter, fine silts, hydrocarbons, and algal matter. Common operational problems include:

  • standing water after required 48 hour drawdown time;
  • clogged soil/media surface;
  • clogged inlet, outlet or underdrains; and
  • invasive plants that out-compete native vegetation.

Design phase maintenance

Implicit in the design guidance is the fact that many design elements of infiltration and filtration systems can minimize the maintenance burden and maintain pollutant removal efficiency. Key examples include:

For more information on design information for dry swales, link here.

Construction phase maintenance

Proper construction methods and sequencing play a significant role in reducing problems with operation and maintenance (O&M). In particular, with construction of filtration and infiltration practices the most important action for preventing operation and maintenance difficulties is to ensure that the contributing drainage area has been fully stabilized prior to bringing the practice on line.

Warning: It is required that the contributing drainage area has been fully stabilized prior to bringing the practice on line

Inspections during construction are needed to ensure that the filtration or infiltration practice is built in accordance with the approved design standards and specifications. Detailed inspection checklists should be used that include sign-offs by qualified individuals at critical stages of construction, to ensure that the contractor’s interpretation of the plan is acceptable to the professional designer. An example construction phase inspection checklist is provided below.

Dry swale construction inspection checklist.
Link to this table
To access an Excel version of form (for field use), click here.

Site Status:
Construction Sequence Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory Comments
1. Pre-Construction
Pre-construction meeting
Runoff diverted (Note type of bypass)
Facility area cleared
Soil tested for permeability
Soil tested for phosphorus content (include test method)
Verify site was not overdug
Project benchmark near site
Facility location staked out
Temporary erosion and sediment protection properly installed
2. Excavation
Lateral slopes completely level
Soils not compacted during excavation
Longitudinal slopes within design range
Stockpile location not adjacent to excavation area and stabilized with vegetation and/ or silt fence
Verify stockpile is not causing compaction and that it is not eroding
Was underlying soil ripped or loosened
Size, location, and inverts per plans
Side slopes stable
Groundwater / bedrock verified
3. Structural Components
Stone diaphragm installed per plans
Outlets installed pre plans
Check dams installed per plans
Underdrain installed to grade
Pretreatment devices installed per plans
Soil bed composition and texture conforms to specifications
Inlets installed per plans
Underdrain installed per plans
4. Vegetation
For native dry swales, plants and materials ordered 6 months prior to construction
For native dry swales, construction planned to allow for adequate planting and establishment of plant community
Complies with planting specs
Topsoil complies with specs in composition and placement
Soil properly stabilized for permanent erosion control
5. Final Inspection
Dimensions per plans
Pretreatment operational
Check dams operational
Inlet/outlet/underdrain operational
Soil/media/filter bed permeability verified
Effective stand of vegetation stabilized
Construction generated sediments removed
Contributing watershed stabilized before flow is diverted to the practice
Actions to be taken:

Post-construction operation and maintenance

Proper maintenance is critical to the successful operation of a filtration or infiltration practice. Without regular maintenance, the soil or media of the filtration or infiltration systems can become clogged, losing its ability to conduct and infiltrate water at the designed rate. This can lead to stagnant water, mosquito breeding habitat, and reduction or elimination of pollutant removal capacity.

Warning: A maintenance plan clarifying maintenance responsibility is REQUIRED. Effective long-term operation of filtration and infiltration practices necessitates a dedicated and routine maintenance schedule with clear guidelines and schedules. Proper maintenance will not only increase the expected lifespan of the facility but will improve aesthetics and property value.

Inspection and maintenance planning

A maintenance plan clarifying maintenance responsibilities is REQUIRED. Effective long-term operation of filtration and infiltration practices necessitates a dedicated and routine maintenance schedule with clear guidelines and schedules. Proper maintenance will not only increase the expected lifespan of the facility but will improve aesthetics and property value. Some important post-construction considerations are provided below along with RECOMMENDED maintenance standards.

  • A site-specific O&M plan that includes the following considerations should be prepared by the designer prior to putting the stormwater practice into operation:
    • Inspection and routine maintenance checklist (see below)
    • Operating instructions for any outlet components
    • Vegetation maintenance schedule (see item 2 in checklist below and section below)
  • A legally binding and enforceable maintenance agreement should be executed between the practice owner and the local review authority to ensure the following:
    • Sediment should be cleaned out of any sedimentation chamber when it accumulates to a depth equal to ½ the total depth to the outlet, or when greater than 1.5 feet, whichever is less. The sediment chamber outlet devices should be cleaned/repaired when drawdown times exceed 36 hours. Trash and debris should be removed as necessary; and
    • Silt/sediment should be removed from the swale bottom when the accumulation exceeds one inch. When the soil/media’s infiltration capacity diminishes substantially (i.e., when water ponds in flat areas or subtle depressions for more than 48 hours), the top few inches of discolored material (visually different from the unclogged soil below) should be removed, core aeration or cultivation should be conducted as warranted, removed soil should be replaced with fresh soil/media, and appropriate vegetation should be installed (e.g., seed) and secured (e.g., erosion control blanket). Removed sediments should be disposed in an acceptable manner.
  • Turf grass swales should be mowed as needed during the growing season to maintain grass heights between 4 and 12 inches.
  • Adequate access must be provided for inspection, maintenance and landscaping upkeep, including appropriate equipment and vehicles.
  • Maintenance activities should be careful not to cause compaction. No vehicles will be allowed within the footprint of the filtration or infiltration area. Foot traffic and stockpiling should be kept to a minimum.
  • Dry swales generally should not be used as dedicated snow storage areas, but can be with the following considerations.
    • Snow storage should not occur in areas designated as potential stormwater hotspots for road salt.
    • Areas designed for infiltration should be protected from excessive snow storage where sand and salt is applied.
    • Specific snow storage areas should be assigned that will provide some filtration before the stormwater reaches the BMP areas. NOTE: Chloride will not be attenuated in filtration or infiltration BMPs such as dry swales.
    • When used for snow storage, or if used to treat parking lot runoff, the BMP area should be planted with salt tolerant and non-woody plant species.
    • BMPs should always be inspected for sand build-up on the surface following the spring melt event.
    • General maintenance activities and schedule are provided below.

Dry swale operation and maintenance checklist.
Link to this table
To access an Excel version of form (for field use), click here.

Site Status:
Maintenance Item Satisfactory / Unsatisfactory Comments
1. Debris Cleanout (Monthly)
Contributing areas clean of litter and vegetative debris
Filtration or infiltration facility clean
Inlets and outlets clear
2. Vegetation (Monthly)
Vegetation maintenance complies with O&M plan
Vegetation meets performance standards (including control of specified invasive species)
Plant composition according to O&M plan
Minimum mowing depth not exceeded
No evidence of erosion
3. Dewatering (monthly)
Dewaters between storms within 48 hours
4. Sediment Deposition (Annual)
Area clean of sediment
Contributing drainage area stabilized and free of erosion
Winter accumulation of sand removed each spring
5. Outlet/Overflow Spillway (Annual, After Major Storms)
Good condition, no need for repair
No evidence of erosion
No evidence of any blockages
No evidence of structural deterioration
6. Other (Monthly)
Encroachment on easement area (if applicable)
Complaints from residents (if applicable)
Any public hazards (specify)
Actions to be taken:

Summary of typical maintenance regime

The list below highlights the assumed maintenance regime for a dry swale.

  • First year after planting
    • Adequate water is crucial to plant survival and temporary irrigation may be needed unless rainfall is adequate until plants mature
    • Inspect after significant rain events (e.g. >0.5 inch)
  • As needed
    • Prune and weed to maintain appearance
    • Remove trash and debris
    • Mow filter strip/grass channel (if present)
    • Replace vegetation whenever the percent cover of acceptable vegetation falls below 90 percent or project specific performance requirements are not met. If vegetation suffers for no apparent reason, consult with horticulturist and/or test soil as needed
    • Repair any structural damage to check dams or tie-in to downstream channel
  • Semi-annually
    • Inspect inflow and pretreatment systems for clogging (off-line systems) and remove any sediment
    • Inspect filter strip/grass channel for erosion or gullying. Sod as necessary
    • Herbaceous vegetation, trees and shrubs should be inspected to evaluate their health and replanted as appropriate to meet project goals
    • Remove any dead or severely diseased vegetation
  • Annually in fall
    • Inspect and remove any sediment and debris build-up in pretreatment areas
    • Inspect inflow points and infiltration surface for buildup of road sand associated with spring melt period, remove as necessary to maintain infiltration rates and volume capacity, and replant areas that have been impacted by sand/salt build up
    • Check structural stability of check dams
  • Annually in spring
    • Cut back and remove previous year’s plant material and remove accumulated leaves if needed (or conduct controlled burn where appropriate)

Estimated hours to perform maintenance activities

All estimated hours listed below would be to perform maintenance on a dry swale system approximately 1,000 square feet in size that has adequate pretreatment and where seed and/or live plants have been installed appropriately. The times do not include travel times.

  • Plant Establishment Period (First two years)
    • Monthly weeding – 12 visits (6 per year) at 1 hour per visit
    • Vegetation replacement – 1 overseeding or replanting effort, 2 hours (assuming 10 percent warrants replacement)
    • Spring cleanup (cut back of previous years vegetation) – 2 cleanups (1 per year) at 2 hours each
    • Erosion, sediment, and pretreatment cleanout – 2 cleanouts (1 per year) at 1 hour each (assuming vacuum truck clean-out of any sump catch basins)
  • Regular Maintenance (After first two years)
    • Bi-monthly (every other month) weeding – 3 visits per year at 1 hour per visit
    • Vegetation replacement – 1 overseeding or replanting effort per year on average, 1 hour (assuming 5 percent warrants replacement)
    • Spring cleanup (cut back of previous years vegetation) – 1 per year at 2 hours
    • Erosion, sediment, and pretreatment cleanout – 2 hours per year on average (assuming vacuum truck clean-out of any sump catch basins once per year, and at least one bi-yearly (every other year) sediment removal from the bottom of the swale)

Erosion protection and sediment monitoring, removal, and disposal

Regular inspection of not only the BMP but also the immediate surrounding catchment area is necessary to ensure a long lifespan of the water quality improvement feature. Erosion should be identified as soon as possible to avoid the contribution of significant sediment to the BMP.

Pretreatment devices need to be maintained for long-term functionality of the entire BMP. Accumulated sediment in filter strips, rock diaphragms, water quality sump catch basins, or any pretreatment features will need to be inspected yearly.

Timing of cleaning of these features is dependent on their design and sediment storage capabilities. In watersheds with erosion or high sediment loadings, the frequency of clean out will likely be increased. A vacuum truck is typically used for sediment removal. It is possible that any sediment removed from pretreatment devices or from the bottom of a dry swale may contain high levels of pollutants. All sediments, similar to those retrieved from a stormwater pond during dredging, may be subjected to the MPCA’s guidance for reuse and disposal.

Sediment loading can potentially lead to a drop in infiltration or filtration rates. It is recommended that infiltration performance evaluations follow the four level assessment systems in Stormwater Treatment: Assessment and Maintenance (Gulliver et al., 2010). See Assessing the performance of dry swale (grass swale) for a summary of assessment methods.

Seeding, planting, and landscaping maintenance

Plant selection during the design process is essential to limit the amount of maintenance required. It is also critical to identify who will be maintaining the BMP in perpetuity and to design the plantings or seedings accordingly. The decision to install containerized plants or to seed will dictate the appearance of the BMP for years to come. If the BMP is designed to be seeded with an appropriate native plant based seed mix, it is essential the owner have trained staff or the ability to hire specialized management professionals. Seedings can provide plant diversity and dense coverage that helps maintain drawdown rates, but landscape management professionals that have not been trained to identify and appropriately manage weeds within the seeding may inadvertently allow the BMP to become infested and the designed plant diversity be lost. The following are minimum requirements for seed establishment and plant coverage.

  • At least 50 percent of specified vegetation cover at end of the first growing season, not including REQUIRED cover crop
  • At least 90 percent of specified vegetation cover at end of the third growing season, not including REQUIRED cover crop
  • Supplement seeding/plantings to meet project specifications if cover requirements are not met
  • Tailor percent coverage requirements to project goals and vegetation. For example, percent cover required for turf after one growing season would likely be 100 percent, whereas it would be lower for other vegetation types.

For information on plant selection, link here or link here.

For proper nutrient control, swales must not be fertilized unless a soil test from a certified lab indicates nutrient deficiency. If this is the case, apply the minimum rate of appropriate nutrients to provide a suitable environment for vegetation establishment while also minimizing the mobilization (and loss) of nutrients to downstream receiving waters. Irrigation may be needed during establishment, depending on soils, precipitation, and if stormwater flows are kept off-line during establishment.

Weeding is especially important during the plant establishment period, when vegetation cover is not 100 percent yet. Some weeding will always be needed. It is also important to budget for some plant replacement (at least 5 to 10 percent of the original plantings or seedings) during the first few years in case some of the plants or seed that were originally installed don’t become vigorous. It is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED that the install contractor be responsible for a plant warranty period. Typically, plant warranty periods can be 60 days or up to one year from preliminary acceptance through final inspections. If budget allows, installing larger plants (#1 container vs. 4” pot) during construction can decrease replacement rates if properly cared for during the establishment period.

Weeding in years after initial establishment should be targeted and thorough. Total eradication of aggressive weeds at each maintenance visit will ultimately reduce the overall effort required to keep the BMP weed free. Mulch is generally not recommended for use in swales since flowing water typically washes it downstream; however, mulch may be appropriate in planting beds or around individual trees on upper sideslopes and adjacent areas.

Rubbish and trash removal will likely be needed more frequently than in the adjacent landscape. Trash removal is important for prevention of mosquitoes and for the overall appearance of the BMP.

Sustainable service life

The service life of swales depends upon the pollutant of concern.

Infiltration rate service life before clogging

It is known that plant roots are essential in macropore formation, which helps maintain infiltration into soil. If proper pretreatment is present, service life for infiltration should be unlimited. However, if construction site runoff (or another source of fines) is not prevented from entering the swale, clogging will occur, limiting or eliminating the infiltration function of the system, thus requiring restorative maintenance or repair (Brown and Hunt, 2010).

Nitrogen reduction

Nitrogen removal is not a primary function of dry swales.

Phosphorus reduction

Phosphorus (P) removal in swales is achieved primarily through infiltration and sorption of phosphorus to trapped sediments. Sediment bound phosphorus is removed through sedimentation, while removal of soluble phosphorus depends on the type of soil/media used. If the soil/media is already saturated with P (i.e., its P binding sites are full), it will not be able to retain additional dissolved P and the P in stormwater will tend to leach from the soil/media as it passes through the biofilter (Hunt et al., 2006). It is highly recommended that the P-index of the media at installation be below 30, which equates to less than 36 milligrams per kilogram P, to ensure P removal capacity. Laboratory research has suggested an oxalate extractable P concentration of 20 to 40 milligrams per liter will provide consistent removal of P (O’Neill and Davis, 2012). Leaching of phosphorus from soil or media is a concern for filtration swales (those having an underdrain). For information on phosphorus leaching from bioretention media, link here.

Heavy metals retention

Metals are typically retained in infiltration systems (including dry swales) through sedimentation and adsorption processes. Since there are a finite amount of sorption sites for metals in a particular soil/media, there will be a finite service life for the removal of dissolved metals. Morgan et al. (2011) investigated cadmium, copper, and zinc removal and retention with batch and column experiments. Using synthetic stormwater at typical stormwater concentrations, they found that 6 inches of filter media composed of 30 percent compost and 70 percent sand will last 95 years until breakthrough (i.e., when the effluent concentration is 10 percent of the influent concentration). They also found that increasing compost from 0 percent to 10 percent more than doubles the expected lifespan for 10 percent breakthrough in 6 inches of filter media for retainage of cadmium and zinc. Using accelerated dosing laboratory experiments, Hatt et al. (2011) found that breakthrough of Zn was observed after 2000 pore volumes, but did not observe breakthrough for Cd, Cu, and Pb after 15 years of synthetic stormwater passed through the media. However, concentrations of Cd, Cu, and Pb on soil/media particles exceeded human and/or ecological health levels, which could have an impact on disposal if the soil/media needed replacement. Since the majority of metals retainage occurs in the upper 2 to 4 inches of the soil/media (Li and Davis, 2008), long-term metals capture may only require rejuvenation of the upper portion of the media.

Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) reduction

Accumulation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in sediments has been found to be so high in some stormwater retention ponds that disposal costs for the dredging spoils were prohibitively high. Research has shown that rain gardens, on the other hand, are “a viable solution for sustainable petroleum hydrocarbon removal from stormwater, and that vegetation can enhance overall performance and stimulate biodegradation.” (Lefevre et al., 2012). Dry swales provide some of the same functions as rain gardens, and therefore would be expected to provide some PAH management. However, swale performance in PAH management has not been the focus of any identified studies.

Typical maintenance problems and activities

The following table summarizes common maintenance concerns, suggested actions, and recommended maintenance schedule.

Typical maintenance problems and activities for dry swales
Link to this table

Inspection Focus Common Maintenance Problems Maintenance Activity Recommended Maintenance Schedule
Drainage Area and Drawdown Time Clogging, sediment deposition Ensure that contributing catchment areas to practice, and inlets are clear of debris Monthly
Erosion of catchment area contributing significant amount of sediment In case of severely reduced drawdown time, scrape bottom of basin and remove sediment. Disc or otherwise aerate/scarify basin bottom. De-thatch if basin bottom is turf grass. Restore original design cross section or revise section to increase infiltration rate and restore with vegetation as necessary. Upon identification of drawdown times longer than 48 hours or upon complete failure
Site Erosion Scouring at inlets Correct earthwork to promote non‐erosive flows that are evenly distributed As necessary
Unexpected flow paths into practice Correct earthwork to eliminate unexpected drainage or created additional stable inlets as necessary As necessary
Vegetation Reduced drawdown time damaging plants Correct drainage issues as described above Replace with appropriate plants after correction of drainage issues
Severe weed establishment Limit the ability for noxious weed establishment by properly mowing, mulching or timely herbicide or hand weeding. Refer to the MDA Noxious Weed List Bi‐monthly April through October
Vegetative cover Add seed/plants to maintain ≥95% vegetative cover. Bi‐monthly April through October

Maintenance agreements

A Maintenance Agreement is a legally binding agreement between two parties, and is defined as ”a nonpossessory right to use and/or enter onto the real property of another without possessing it.“ Maintenance Agreements are often required for the issuance of a permit for construction of a stormwater management feature and are written and approved by legal counsel. Maintenance Agreements are often similar to Construction Easements. A Maintenance Agreement is required for one party to define and enforce maintenance by another party. The Agreement also defines site access and maintenance of any features or infrastructure if the property owner fails to perform the required maintenance.

Maintenance Agreements are commonly established for a defined period such as five years for a residential site or 10 to 20 years for a commercial/governmental site after construction of the infiltration or filtration practice. Maintenance agreements often define the types of inspection and maintenance that would be required for that infiltration or filtration practice and what the timing and duration of the inspections and maintenance may be. Essential inspection and maintenance activities include but are not limited to drawdown time, sediment removal, erosion monitoring and correction, and vegetative maintenance and weeding. If maintenance is required to be performed due to failure of the site owner to properly maintain the infiltration or filtration practices, payment or reimbursement terms of the maintenance work are defined in the Agreement. Below is an example list of maintenance standards from an actual Maintenance Agreement.

  1. Live plantings and seeding areas shall be watered as necessary to achieve performance standards.
  2. Weeding and vegetation management (e.g., mowing, spot spraying) shall be conducted as necessary to achieve performance standards.
  3. Dead plant material, garbage, and other debris shall be removed from the swale at least annually.
  4. Silt/sediment should be removed from the swale bottom when the accumulation exceeds one inch.
  5. Side slopes must be inspected for erosion and the formation of rills or gullies at least annually, and erosion problems must be corrected immediately.
  6. If properly planned, designed, constructed, and maintained (including protected from sediment and compaction and incorporating sufficient pretreatment), a dry swale is likely to retain its effectiveness for well over 20 years. After that time, inspection will reveal whether sedimentation warrants scraping out the swale bottom and replanting it.

In some project areas, a drainage easement may be required. Having an easement provides a mechanism for enforcement of maintenance agreements to help ensure swales are maintained and functioning. Drainage easements also require that the land use not be altered in the future. Drainage easements exist in perpetuity and are required property deed amendment to be passed down to all future property owners.

As defined by the Maintenance Agreement, the landowner should agree to provide notification immediately upon any change of the legal status or ownership of the property. Copies of all duly executed property transfer documents should be submitted as soon as a property transfer is made final.

Maintenance inspection reports

To link to the maintenance inspection report, click here. The contents of the inspection form are provided below. For another source of information on visual indicators, see Chesapeake Stormwater visual indicators form.

Maintenance Inspection Report for Dry Swale with Check Dams and Stormwater Step Pool. Can be used for wet swales with exceptions, as noted in footnotes.

Date: ____________________________________________________________________

Inspector Name/Address/Phone Number: _______________________________________

Site Address: ______________________________________________________________

Owner Name/Address/Phone Number: _________________________________________

Drainage Area Stabilization (Inspect after large storms for first two years, Inspect yearly in spring or after large storms after first two years)

  • Erosion control/planting/seeding necessary: __________________________________________________
  • Mowing, pruning and debris removal necessary: _______________________________________________
  • Observations:

______________________________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________________________________

Inlets & Pretreatment Structures (Inspect in Spring and Fall)

  • Repair needed: _________________________________________________________________________
  • Debris & sediment removal required: _______________________________________________________
  • Erosion evident: _________________________________________________________________________
  • Water by-passing inlet: ___________________________________________________________________
  • Vegetation control necessary: _____________________________________________________________
  • Observations:

______________________________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________________________________

Swale (Inspect after large storms for first two years, Inspect yearly in spring or after large storms after first two years)

  • Condition of infiltration area1: ______________________________________________________________
  • Condition of check dams: _________________________________________________________________
  • Surface erosion evident: __________________________________________________________________
  • Debris/sediment removal required: _________________________________________________________
  • Adequate drawdown/standing water2: _______________________________________________________
  • Weeding and pruning necessary: ___________________________________________________________
  • Mulch replacement necessary3: _____________________________________________________________
  • Observations:

______________________________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________________________________

Outlet/Emergency Overflow (Inspect in Spring and Fall)

  • Overflow type: _________________________________________________________________________
  • Debris/sediment removal required: _________________________________________________________
  • Repair needed: _________________________________________________________________________
  • Observations:

______________________________________________________________________________________ ______________________________________________________________________________________

1For wet swale, check condition of inundated area
2For wet swale with check dam, drawdown applies to the water elevation at the botton of weir
3Not applicable for wet swale

Related pages

This page was last edited on 25 August 2021, at 12:49.


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