Maintaining a Healthy Yard: Reducing Runoff Pollution through Naturalization

By James Acey, Great Parks of Hamilton County

In so much of America, we alter the land to match what we need from it. This includes the yards at our homes – classic, green lawns with children playing with toys and sports equipment. There are seas of cut grass, some a steady green and others with striped waves, dominating the residential landscape.

While green lawns are a big part of our culture, it’s also worth considering how these altered landscapes add to water runoff patterns, which have proven to be detrimental to native biodiversity and human health. However, it is still possible for us to have a low-maintenance, ecologically friendly, and beautiful native yard.

What is Runoff and What Does it Do?

After a storm, you may look out and see water flowing down a street or across a parking lot towards a storm drain, or even directly into a stream or pond. Runoff is the excess water that land cannot absorb. It ends up “running over” a surface(s), hence the name, picking up pollutants on its way to sewers and waterways.

Each year, volunteers remove bags of plastic and other litter carried into Winton Lake by runoff from nearby waterways.

These pollutants can harm fish and other aquatic creatures directly (think of a fish swallowing plastic) or indirectly. For instance, runoff can carry sediment into streams that cover up grasses and other vegetation along the side of and at the bottom of waterways, reducing their availability to the creatures that rely on them. This can also make the cleaning and treatment of drinking water sources more costly. In addition, excessive fertilizer that makes its way into waterways in runoff from throughout the watershed also incites algal blooms that reduce oxygen concentrations in the water, killing aquatic wildlife. Runoff can carry bacteria that not only affects the native wildlife but can contaminate recreation areas and cause serious illness in visitors (you may think of algal blooms and bacteria at East Fork Lake).

There has been an upsurge of these pollutants making their way into streams, lakes, and rivers in tandem with the increase in urban development (buildings, parking lots, etc.) that do not easily allow precipitation to be reabsorbed into soils but instead redirect it. This redirection is great for collecting water and moving it away from buildings but results in an increase in the volume, temperature, and velocity of the runoff when it is released. These stronger currents can alter waterways by sweeping away vegetation and sediment along banks and beds, as well as destabilizing underwater landscapes that create various habitats.

You may then ask, “What does that have to do with my lawn, which has grass and soil to absorb water?” While manicured lawns do indeed absorb water, there is a limit to the rate at which the water can be absorbed or even evaporated off the surface. With many lawns having a gradient of some level, water will continue to flow across the surface, picking up anything in its path once that limit is reached. However, there are multiple methods you can use to reduce runoff in your yard.

Ideas to Reduce Runoff Pollution in Your Yard

One major way you can reduce runoff at home is to replace some of your impenetrable surfaces (like concrete paths) with penetrable materials (like gravel) or replace manicured grassy areas with other native plants. This can be as simple as planting shrubs or trees in areas where water converges, like a drainage ditch, which helps to catch and absorb the water for the plant’s use.

Purple coneflowers are a great option for many rain gardens.

Creating a rain garden in your yard will not only reduce runoff, but also help filter the water before it is reabsorbed into the ground, and creating one is quite simple. While every yard is different, you will want your rain garden to include native plants with deep tap roots and varying levels of water needs, ranging from mostly dry (around the edges) to tolerant of extended wetness (in the center). Native plants are the best choice for rain gardens as they are not only accustomed to the local climate but attract and provide for local wildlife as well, and who doesn’t love seeing wildlife in their yard. More information regarding planting native can be found in our “Gardening at Home: The Importance of Native Plants” blog post.

Another approach to collecting and diverting rainwater is through the use of a rain barrel. Attaching a rain barrel to a downspout helps collect rainwater from your roof, reducing the amount of runoff going through your yard. It can then be stored and used later to water plants, wash off equipment, etc. Plants in particular benefit from this as rainwater is preferred because it is typically softer and has fewer minerals than tap water. This is a low-cost solution to reducing runoff, with the added benefit of reducing household water consumption, saving you more money.

You may find it easier to incorporate ways that reduce the actual pollutants found in stormwater runoff. Fertilizers can be used sparingly, as many plants may not need as much as you think. Even better is the use of organic, slow-release fertilizers or compost. These can be found or made right at home, putting waste to use. Examples include but are not limited to yard waste like leaves, grass clippings, pulled weeds, food waste like coffee grounds, fish, and eggshells, and various manures. I use horse manure from Parky’s Farm.

Vehicle and equipment maintenance also contributes to polluted runoff but can be easily curbed. Washing equipment over grassy areas like your lawn will allow for the water to be naturally held and filtered by the grass into the soil. Buckets of soapy water can be poured down your drain rather than tossed on the driveway, allowing for it to reach sewage treatment plants rather than waterways. Taking your car to a commercial car wash can also reduce pollutant runoff as some car washes will reuse water before sending it to a sewage treatment plant. Checking vehicles and equipment regularly for dripping and leaking and getting them fixed helps reduce pollutants as well as preserves the lifespan and usage of the equipment. Many auto stores will take used motor oil to be recycled and you can check with your local community regarding specific waste collection days, events, and locations.

I challenge you to investigate where these practices could be implemented on your own property and start making some plans. No matter what steps you decide to take, reducing runoff pollution from your yard is a great way to help preserve our waterways and local biodiversity for future generations.

An ecologically friendly, low-maintenance, beautiful yard is just within reach. If you’d like more information regarding reducing runoff or runoff pollution, or other ways to maintain your yard, check out the Great Parks of Hamilton County blog!