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Sonoma County Gazette
Stormwater runoff drain

Stormwater Runoff After the Fire

Oct 25, 2017
by Kellen Watson, Daily Acts


With all the fires, I’m very nervous about toxic stormwater runoff and large scale erosion. There are huge areas of denuded soil, as well as a lot of toxic ash which could lead to a pretty nasty situation in our waterways. There is a wonderful cross-sector group working on an immediate restoration strategy for burned areas, but there is something the rest of us can do too. We need to act collectively to reduce non-burn related stormwater pollution and erosion to help mitigate for the additional pollutant load on our creeks from the fires. Any homeowner or other land-steward, especially those of us not in the burn zone, can make a difference here. Ultimately, this is our drinking water, our wildlife, and our ocean health we’re talking about. 

Remember, water going down our storm drains enters creeks UNTREATED, and often carries contaminates from roadways, parking lots, and yards. Because the percentage of hard, impermeable surfaces in Sonoma County has increased significantly over the years, and has just increased even more with these fires, rainwater tends to run off the land quickly and cause dehydrated land as well as river and ocean pollution, erosion, and flooding. So, here are 4 strategies to help slow, spread, sink, and store rainwater so that it doesn’t become a stormwater issue.

1. Cover, Cover, Cover

Use woodchips, leaves, or weed-free certified straw to cover any bare soil areas. Even in your garden beds, bare soil can erode away in big storms, which is bad for the creeks and your garden’s topsoil. This is the perfect time to add mulch to that bare area that has been looking bad for years anyway.

2. Rain Tanks & Barrels

Living in an earthquake and fire prone area of the world means each home needs to take extra precautions to ensure adequate staple supplies in the event of an emergency. Rain tanks or barrels can provide a vitally important, large source of high-quality water. Regulations have recently been changed allowing rainwater in tanks to be used for potable use with proper filtration and treatment (particulate and UV filters).

This water can also be hand filtered or boiled to produce potable quality water in the case of a broken water main or other disaster. Stored rainwater also increases seed germination, dilutes soil salts, and is an all-around great source of irrigation water!

3. Rain Gardens & Swales

Go look around your house and see where your gutters are going. If the water from storms is being piped onto a hard surface like the driveway, or into a pipe underground, evaluate whether that water could be put into a rain garden or a series of on-contour swales in a nearby landscape instead. Rain gardens are shallow depressions in the soil that hold water while it slowly infiltrates. Swales are basically shallow ditches, but dug to be level across the landscape rather than going down the grade of a slope and serve a similar purpose to rain gardens. Any pools in rain gardens or swales need to be at least 10’ away from your foundation, and always make sure you have an adequate overflow. The plants in rain gardens and swales help filter stormwater and are chosen for their ability to withstand dry summers and standing water in the winters. Plants for the deepest areas include Gray Rush, most of the Sedge species, and Cape Rush. Higher up on the edges, try Black-Eyed Susans, Redtwig Dogwood, Pacific Wax Myrtle, native Milkweeds, native Asters, and Spicebush, or many others that can tolerate less than perfect drainage.

4. Increase Permeability

Are there areas of your yard that are paved but don’t need to be? Ask yourself how often a given surface really gets walked or driven on. An increasing trend in eco-groovy homes is to remove the center strip of the driveway and only leave concrete/ashphalt where the tires go. Renting a concrete saw is actually a lot more fun and easy than it sounds, and the center area can be planted with beautiful groundcovers or succulents. Or if you need to repair cracked cement anyways, consider removing it altogether and replacing with permeable pavers, upcycled redwood rounds, gravel, a different colored mulch, or compacted quarry fines, depending on the use of the area. Fines are much less expensive than decomposed granite.

The repairs for stormwater problems, including flood cleanup, road issues, and habitat restoration projects, are very costly and are usually funded in one way or another by taxpayer dollars. Anything we can do to slow, spread, sink, and store water, before it becomes problematic runoff, reduces pressure on our environment and ultimately saves money, even if there is some upfront cost. Because of climate change, we don’t know whether CA will experience increased drought or deluge winters, or both. Either way, collecting rainwater makes a lot of sense, and is a great way to help Sonoma County recover.

Daily Acts is planning a hands-on rainwater storage workshop onSaturday, December 2nd. Keep an eye on our website,, for details. Questions and comments can be addressed to Kellen Watson at

Garden Delights by Kellen Watson


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