#30 - Bioswales: From Swamp To Idyllic Place
Updated: Aug 29
by KC Johnson
What if you could step out your backdoor and have a mini-wildlife preserve….to watch birds, butterflies, frogs, turtles, and beautiful indigenous plants growing around a peaceful water feature?
Sounds too good to be possible? Sounds like too much work? Perhaps having a bioswale is more possible than one would think. It is possible to create an idyllic place that helps solve many environmental problems and brings a tranquil escape from the everyday madness life brings us.
Millions of us have the ability to significantly improve the bio-diversity balance in the world while restoring our water needs and creating delightful spaces to enjoy.
Bioswales are a multifaceted approach to partially solving several critical issues we are facing. Basically, a bioswale is a collection point for re-cycling and cleaning our grey water and rainwater run-off. It can be funneled into an aesthetic water feature filtered naturally through water plants that also can be managed to promote flora and fauna species restorations. This reduces the volume of cleaner sink water we flush down the drains and the rain runoff from pavements and roofs through down spouts and into our costly sewage systems and streams. Black water is not grey water like from showers, but is what we flush down our toilets, washing machines, and any toxics down our drains.
For homeowners any available space can convert into creatively designed features that have practical applications addressing one or more of the critical needs our homes and neighborhoods have taken away from the natural living-balance the land once maintained. We have sacrificed healthy eco-systems for overly controlled lawns, roadways, structures, and open spaces that have destroyed that balance in the name of our comfort and utility. By re-designing our spaces we can significantly restore parts of these spaces with more natural features that actually improve our land values, provides greater diversity of flora and fauna, and gives us much greater peace-of-mind.
Prime locations for bioswales could be properties controlled by homeowners, schools, businesses, apartment complexes, governments, and many other landowner spaces. This concept is completely customizable with designs fitting the available spaces. A small backyard water feature conversion can work just as well as a large apartment complex common area conversion. The design and ‘wildness’ look is just as flexible as well managed and more wild appearing landscaping, or aesthetic water features that also include indigenous plants and water life, or more functional rainwater overflow management designs that store water and prevent harmful pollutants from invading our waterways.
Many communities already have government and private business entities focusing on rainwater and grey water management, though most do not, so there still is massive room for creative designing and managing water-capture features. We have barely scratch the surface of what our communities are capable of achieving in water capture and species restorations within our urban and suburban areas.
Look at an aerial photo of any urban or suburban community and it becomes clear how much space is devoid of natural features crying out for ecological restorations.
Huge tracts of 'sanitized' land converted for human habitation at the expense of the rightful possessors of the land -- the flora and fauna.
Desolate lands surrounding these homes are in desperate need for making the properties inviting places to live for humans and wildlife.
The meager planting of trees and shrubbery do little to encourage re-vitalizing the native plants, invertebrates, and animals that once inhabited these spaces. With so much potential land around our home and communities not designed for water features, we miss out on the soothing indigenous plants, butterflies, birds, and other intriguing creatures. We instead opt for mowing lawns, applying expensive toxic chemicals to the land to make things look nice, and pay for water bills to make up for the water the sterile soil has not retained.
The price we pay just for watering our lawns is pretty significant. According to WaterSignal.com, a residential water management firm, a 40’ x 40’ lawn being watered weekly during the several dry months of summer will require about an inch of water once/week. This roughly amounts to 1000 gallons being used during that one watering event each week and does not include the water needed for flowerbeds, washing the car, children playing with the water, the inside water used on a daily basis for personal usage. For Portland, OR, the billing rate for water usage is .01/gallon, not too expensive. Times the 20 watering days during the summer and the rate is about $233. Most cities also link a water bill with the sewer bill that can triple the overall bill. Also, many people over water their lawns, forget the sprinkler is on, or rely on costly in-ground irrigation pipes and pre-set times that can also result in more water usage. Basically, lawns are expensive when taken care of just to keep them green.
But we could be making our living environment an eco-paradise that blends our need for housing with our originally displaced natural friends’ need for a living space while saving us endless hours mowing lawns and spending valuable dollars making the grass grow.
That is the point of living in harmony with nature. It takes a change in our awareness and consciousness. The benefit of wild scaping our living environment leads us to discovering how to live in harmony within ourselves as well. The environment is a reflection of the degree of healing we have within us now, and considering the ecological disasters happening all around us at accelerating speed, it seems we desperately need some inner healing.
Advantages of Living in Harmony with Nature
Living with a backyard water feature like this is not always possible, so just do what is possible, even if it is a small body of water surrounded by indigenous plants, a difference will be felt.
We think of our homes as places to be maintained for our comfort, for improving our investment, and for the aesthetics our yards give us. Considering the expenses we dedicate to these purposes we often don’t factor in the financial benefits we could receive from balancing nature with our living needs. Adding a new bathroom improves the value of a home, as does another bedroom, a garage conversion, a covered patio, or a remodeled basement. We also can add value with a modest, yet tastefully designed water feature landscaped to support our indigenous flora and fauna.
“A water feature in the front yard adds to the overall package of the curb appeal if it’s done properly,” says Brittany Mendoza a Move Safe certified agent in the Modesto, California. “One benefit that a water feature gives you is that nice, calming, relaxing sound. So it adds both a visual and an auditory value to your curb appeal.”
Even though these water features may or may not provide significant monetary value to a home’s resale price, adding bioswales and other grey water capture systems can provide great value in terms of bringing beauty and peacefulness to any space when done properly. The personal knowledge that adding these features are helping solve significant environmental problems makes taking these actions a personal achievement.
This concept could grow into a range of cottage industries and small entrepreneurs servicing: bioswale designing, building the in-ground and above ground structures, providing the products and equipment, and servicing these water features by balancing the flora and fauna. These important supportive businesses add value to our homes and quality to our lives. These small businesses and start-ups will likely cost less than the expense for watering lawns and groundskeeping services we often pay for, and the aesthetic value will be magnified more than will barren lawns.
Construction of the water features would support new types of landscaping in small spaces. There are already companies building these model solutions, but the need vastly surpasses what can be serviced by today’s bioswale and greenhouse construction businesses. Nearly any small-to-large space can convert to a water feature that adds to the overall balance of nature. Whether it is 10’ long or 100’ long it is possible to trap water runoff around our homes, perhaps preserve it for dry season needs, and design it to enhance our style and taste in enjoyment areas. Even adding on to a water feature is quite possible, much easier than adding a new addition to a home.
Along with installing the water features many people will want to add other features to increase the enjoyment. Small businesses will be needed to supply the rocks/boulders, bed liners, outdoor furniture, live cams for above and below the waterline, filters and pumps to maintain water quality, perhaps even PV panels to provide the power for lights, the pumps, fountains, and maybe even a lighted gazebo for evening viewing moments.
A backyard water feature is still not an entirely natural environment. Fences, managed ponds, streams, flow rates, etc., will interfere with the movement of plants and animals, and the flora/fauna will need servicing once a year to maintain as healthy a balance as is reasonable. This may require a trained person specializing in balancing the various eco-systems if the homeowner doesn’t want to learn how to do this aspect of water feature life.
Plus, managing water features is no more difficult to manage by the homeowner than it is trying to understand taking care of any other part of a home’s surroundings and could result in performing fewer tasks like mowing, taking care of equipment, and buying fertilizers and weed control needs. A young teen person interested in the environment could enjoying discovering the natural balances around these spaces, and since the aesthetic value affects the entire family, it can become a family experience deciding which species to include.
Bioswales will require raising flora and fauna indigenous species in small local greenhouses growing the plants, animals, and invertebrates supplying the vast range of possible restoration needs for each community and biome area. Many communities are already trying to restore countryside areas like fence rows, drainage areas, fields, waterways, and forests, and these greenhouses can be valuable tools for providing the native species these areas need. Having a supportive network of greenhouses raising these species becomes a venue for employment and education, and every community has a need for many different growing needs insuring a robust network of new businesses.
These water features can become a focal point for environmental education and activism for our children and adults who have become divorced from the natural order of life. Schools can add bioswales as an addition to their natural sciences curriculum. Children at very early grades need to get hands on contact with the natural life around them. Nothing will fire up a group of kids like raising turtles or frogs or butterflies to restore diminishing species. Once raised, these students will get to watch them being released knowing they are making real contributions to their environment. They develop a sense of ownership for the environment they will carry with them the rest of their lives.
Once bioswale water-capture systems become established, and I believe they will in time, for those who want to show off their creations, some people may want to have a Tour-of-Homes type of event where they invite others to see what they have done. And when these water features are installed in a front yard, the entire neighborhood can enjoy the creation as well. Except for the driest parts of the country most homeowners will have lots of rainwater and grey water to supply their water feature needs. And even in dry areas, adding an underground water capture tank can provide significant continuous water flow.
So the question is: which of these backyards would you prefer?
Mowing the lawn on your Saturday in the hot sun?
Or entertaining by your own creek side on your own patio?
The peaceful space could inspire creative viewing opportunities with yard furniture, gazebos, and small bridges over the created ponds and streams. Depending upon the type and size of water-capture features we can restore and attract interesting and fun-to-watch wildlife that can be ideal for our personal screen saver cam views. These can be as mesmerizing to watch as any TikTok video and immensely more relaxing. With our ever-increasing urgent need for improving our environment and ecology in all corners of our world, these needs are growing into much-in-demand business opportunities that can be supported by public and private funding, and of course, the intrepid entrepreneurs.
How Enormous Is Our Bioswale And Water Capture Potential Throughout The World?
It is huge! When we consider the number of neighborhoods, business and apartment complexes, flat-roofed structures, schools with open grounds, parks, government buildings, urban/suburban/rural undeveloped spaces that have been environmentally degraded and altered from those lands once in a natural balance, the potential is staggering. Likely hundreds of millions of spaces could be re-naturalized to some extent with all of it waiting on only one factor -- our commitment to take action!
The heightened awareness to create this reality will completely alter our tolerance for toxic chemicals in our environment, require new thinking about how land is managed, and remove significant factors degrading our health and well-being.
Here are some statistics showing the breadth of our challenge just in the United States:
* 91.83 million -- number of suburban homes lived in by owners US 2020 Census
-- a vast majority of these homes are in neighborhoods with some land surrounding the homes
-- if even 10% of these homes added water-features to their property, a significant benefit to our eco-system would result
* 115,576 -- number of public and private schools in 2022
-- even many urban schools can have enough space for bioswales and water capture features
-- we need to set a goal for at least 50% of our schools installing one or more water features
* 80,000 -- number of businesses with 100+ employees in 2022
-- larger corporations tend to have buildings with open grounds and big paved areas
-- if even 20% of these businesses installed larger bioswales and native flora/fauna restoration
projects, a huge precedent could be set for tackling this pressing need
Business and industrial parks have lots of water runoff from large roofs and pavement that desperately need grey water and habitat restoration with wild scaping around buildings without affecting business operations.
Schools often have huge spaces with grassy expanses that could easily be converted into water capture features that also promote flora/ fauna restorations as well as it being an ecological teaching tool.
Suburban homes with lots of grass to keep green and pavement without water capture and bioswale features exacerbates our issues of runoff waterway pollution.
These are examples of some places our communities can develop complimentary water-capture and bioswale runoff cleaning of rainwater and even grey water. By making only a reasonable water capture conversions in our populated areas we will have significant impacts on our environment. Developing a partnership between property owners, government entities, schools, and ecology organizations real progress is possible in a relatively short period of time. Citizens have to demand the changes before action will happen.
In Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World (2007), he reflex on what President George H.W. Bush often said that his job was to protect ‘business rights’: “…he repeated the oft-heard complaint of corporations that liberals and do-gooders unjustifiably criticize commerce and stifle economic development. This logic has become cast in stone and is repeated endlessly, but when one looks back dispassionately over the past centuries, it is impossible to find a period when business didn’t have a disproportionate share of rights in the world. Business justifies these rights because of its indisputable argument that it creates value, a position that nevertheless neatly evades the other side of the issue: How much value does it destroy in the process of carrying out its activities? Whether value is taken from the environment in the form of resources or despoliation, or from people in terms of wages, conditions, or worker health, it is largely unaccounted for in the calculation of value.”
We are in a massive social/environmental movement with roots going back hundreds of years. The battle is with abusive people the world over willing to liquidate the beauty and wonder nature has to offer everyone capable of enjoying it in the name of making a dollar. The 1982 movie, Koyaanisqati, a Hopi word for ‘life out of balance’, was an early modern salvo bringing attention to that corporate mind running amuck. We have tried reigning in these world power-businesses since then with regulations, but to only minor success.
Our need is for the everyday citizen to take on the balancing of nature for themselves. The main reason we don’t have environmentally sustainable neighborhoods and cities is our citizens have not insisted on that balance being maintained or at least considered. The developers only wanted to extract as much ‘value’ as possible from the land caring little about the damage being done to the natural environment. Trying to impose regulations at the administrative level has left much to be desired.
We don’t have to wait for governments to solve these environmental challenges for us. We have some solutions within our grasp. The upsides are many with very few drawbacks. As these ideas grow and bioswales become common features around us, our endangered species can find many opportunities to expand their depleted populations with protected small habitat islands dotting every neighborhood and growing into corridors of indigenous plants supporting endangered butterflies and countless other species.
Now we need local property owners to begin that transformation back to more natural environments for our lands. Our children need to see working models of how a balance of nature, even at a limited scale, can be the responsibility for each of us. Our schools invest nearly 50% of their ‘educational lands’ for sports fields and less than 1% for environmental solutions. Is it any wonder we have raised generations of adults ignorant about the natural world around us?
This is much more than just an aesthetic concern. It is one of the few hands-on steps many of us can take to challenge the Pres. Bush mindset.The collateral benefit of rescuing indigenous plants and wildlife is we bring peace and tranquility into our lives, we create important learning laboratories for our children, and we support the creation of sustainable jobs that mean something.But as important as those benefits are, we begin putting the brakes on rampant destruction of our lands giving us a win-win-win-win outcome. - kc