Vegetated Filter Strips

From Massachusetts Stormwater Handbook

Image of vegetated filter strips


Vegetated filter strips, also known as filter strips, grass buffer strips and grass filters, are uniformly graded vegetated surfaces (i.e., grass or close-growing native vegetation) that receive runoff from adjacent impervious areas. Vegetated filter strips typically treat sheet flow or small concentrated flows that can be distributed along the width of the strip using a level spreader. Vegetated filter strips are designed to slow runoff velocities, trap sediment, and promote infiltration, thereby reducing runoff volumes.

Ability to Meet Massachusetts Stormwater Management Standards

2 - Peak FlowProvides some peak flow attenuation but usually not enough to achieve compliance with Standard 2
3 - RechargeNo recharge credit
4 - TSS Removal If greater than or equal to 25’ and less than 50’ wide, 10% TSS removal.If greater than or equal to 50’ wide, 45% TSS removal.
5 - Higher Pollutant LoadingMay be used as part of a pretreatment train if lined
6 - Discharges near or to Critical AreasMay be used as part of a pretreatment train if lined. May be used near cold-water fisheries.
7 - RedevelopmentSuitable for pretreatment or as a stand-alone practice if sufficient land is available.


  • Reduces runoff volumes and peak flows.
  • Slows runoff velocities and removes sediment.
  • Low maintenance requirements.
  • Serves as an effective pretreatment for bioretention cells
  • Can mimic natural hydrology
  • Small filter strips may be used in certain urban settings.
  • Ideal for residential settings and to treat runoff from small parking lots and roads.
  • Can be used as part of runoff conveyance system in combination with other BMPs
  • Little or no entrapment hazard for amphibians or other small creatures


  • Variability in removal efficiencies, depending on design
  • Little or no treatment is provided if the filter strip is short-circuited by concentrated flows.
  • Often a poor retrofit option due to large land requirements.
  • Effective only on drainage areas with gentle slopes (less than 6 percent).
  • Improper grading can greatly diminish pollutant removal.
  • TSS (if filter strip is 25 feet wide) 10% assumed (Regulatory)
  • TSS (if filter strip is 50 feet wide) 45% assumed (Regulatory)
  • Nutrients (Nitrogen, phosphorus) Insufficient data
  • Metals (copper, lead, zinc, cadmium) Insufficient data
  • Pathogens (coliform, e coli) Insufficient data


Inspect the level spreader for sediment buildup and the vegetation for signs of erosion, bare spots, and overall health.Every six months during the first year. Annually thereafter.
Regularly mow the grass.As needed
Remove sediment from the toe of slope or level spreader and reseed bare spots.As needed

Special Features

Include an impermeable liner and underdrain for discharges from Land Use with Higher Potential Pollutant Loads and for discharges within Zone IIs and Interim Wellhead Protection Areas; for discharges near or to other critical areas or in soils with rapid infiltration rates greater than 2.4 inches per hour.


Vegetated filter strips are used to pretreat sheet flow from roads, highways, and small parking lots. In residential settings, they are useful in pretreating sheet flow from driveways. They provide effective pretreatment, especially when combined with bioretention areas and stream buffers. Urban areas can sometimes accommodate small filter strips depending on available land area, making them potential retrofit options in certain urban settings.

Vegetated filter strips can also be used as side slopes of grass channels or water quality swales to enhance infiltration and remove sediment.


Variable TSS removal efficiencies have been reported for filter strips, depending on the size of the contributing drainage area, the width of the filter strip, the underlying parent soil, the land slope, the type of vegetation, how well the vegetation is established, and maintenance practices. Vegetated filter strips may remove nutrients and metals depending on the length and slope of the filter, soil permeability, size and characteristics of the drainage area, type of vegetative cover, and runoff velocity.

Planning Considerations

Vegetated filter strips may be used as a stand-alone practice for redevelopments, only where other practices are not feasible. Vegetated filter strips can be designed to fit within the open space and rights of way that are available along roads and highways. Do not design vegetated filter strips to accept runoff from land uses with higher potential pollutant loads (LUHHPL) without a liner. Vegetated filter strips function best for drainage areas of one acre or less with gentle slopes.


Do not locate vegetated filter strips in soils with high clay content that have limited infiltration or in soils that cannot sustain grass cover.

The filter strip cannot extend more than 50 feet into a Buffer Zone to a wetland resource area.

The contributing drainage area to a vegetated filter strip is limited to one acre of less.

Design vegetated filter strips with slopes between 2 and 6 percent. Steeper slopes tend to create concentrated flows. Flatter slopes can cause ponding and create mosquito-breeding habitat.

Design the top and toe of the slope to be as flat as possible. Use a level spreader at the top of the slope to evenly distribute overland flows or concentrated runoff across the entire length of the filter strip. Many variations of level spreader designs may be used including level trenches, curbing and concrete weirs. The key to any level spreader design is creating a continuous overflow elevation along the entire width of the filter strip.

Velocity dissipation (e.g. by using riprap) may be required for concentrated flows.

Design the filter strip to drain within 24 hours after a storm. The design flow depth must not exceed 0.5 inches.

To receive TSS removal credit, make the filter strip at least 25 feet long and generally as wide as the area draining to the strip. To prevent high-velocity concentrated flows, the length of the flow path must be limited to 75 feet if the filter strip handles runoff from impervious surfaces, and 150 feet if the filter strip handles runoff from pervious surfaces. The minimum width of the filter strip must be 20% of the length of the flow path or 8 feet, whichever is greater.

To prevent groundwater contamination, the filter strip must be constructed at least 2 feet above seasonal high groundwater and 2 to 4 feet above bedrock.

The filter strip must be planted with grasses that are relatively salt-tolerant. Select grasses to withstand high flow velocities under wet weather conditions.

A vegetated filter strip may be used as a qualifying pervious area for purposes of the LID Site Design Credits for disconnecting rooftop and nonroof top runoff.


Proper grading is essential to establish sheet flow from the level spreader and throughout the filter strip.

Implement soil stabilization measures until permanent vegetation is established.

Protect the area to be used for the filter strip by using upstream sediment traps.

Use as much of the existing topsoil on the site as possible to enhance plant growth.


Regular maintenance is critical for filter strips to be effective and to ensure that flow does not short- circuit the system. Conduct semi-annual inspections during the first year (and annually thereafter). Inspect the level spreader for sediment buildup and the vegetation for signs of erosion, bare spots, and overall health. Regular, frequent mowing of the grass is required. Remove sediment from the toe of slope or level spreader, and reseed bare spots as necessary. Periodically, remove sediment that accumulates near the top of the strip to maintain the appropriate slope and prevent formation of a "berm" that could impede the distribution of runoff as sheet flow.

When the filter strip is located in the buffer zone to a wetland resource area, the operation and maintenance plan must include strict measures to ensure that maintenance operations do not alter the wetland resource areas. Please note, filter strips are restricted to the outer 50 feet of the buffer zone.

Cold Climate Considerations

In cold climates such as Massachusetts, the depth of soil media that serves as the planting bed must extend below the frost line to minimize the effects of freezing. Avoid using peat and compost media, which retain water and freeze during the winter, and become impermeable and ineffective.


Center for Watershed Protection, Stormwater Management Fact Sheet: Grassed Filter Strip,

Knox County, Stormwater Management Manual, Volume 2, Section 4.3.9, Filter Strip, Pp. 4-155 to 4-164,

Knoxville, City of, 2003, Knoxville BMP Manual Stormwater Treatment, Filter Strips and Swales, Practice No. ST – 05,

Maine Department of Environmental Protection. 2006, Maine Stormwater Best Management Practices Manual, Chapter 5, Pp. 5-1 to 5-18,

Maryland Department of the Environment, 2000, Maryland Stormwater Design Manual, Volume I, Chapter 2, Unified Sizing Criteria, P. 2.39,

Massachusetts Highway Department. 2004. Storm Water Handbook for Highways and Bridges.

Metropolitan Council. 2001. Minnesota Urban Small Sites BMP Manual: Stormwater Best Management Practices for Cold Climates. Prepared by Barr Engineering Company. St. Paul, Minnesota.

New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, 2004, Best Management Practice Manual, Chapter 9.10, Standard for Vegetated Filter Strip, Pp. 9.10-1 to 9.11-10,

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYDEC). 2001. New York State Stormwater Management Design Manual. Prepared by Center for Watershed Protection. Albany, New York.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 1999. Preliminary Data Summary of Urban Storm Water Best Management Practices. EPA 821-R99-012.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). 2002. National Menu of Best Management Practices for Stormwater Phase II. URL: ,, Last Modified January 24, 2002.

Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Chapter 3, Minimum Standard 3.14, Vegetated Filter Strip, Pp. 3.14-1 to 3.14.-14,

Yu, S.L., S.L. Barnes, and V.W. Gerde, 993. Testing of Best Management Practices for Controlling Highway Runoff. Virginia Transportation Research Council, Charlottesville, VA.