Water Quality Swale

Image of a water quality swale


Water quality swales are vegetated open channels designed to treat the required water quality volume and to convey runoff from the 10-year storm without causing erosion.

There are two different types of water quality swales that may be used to satisfy the Stormwater Management Standards:
  • Dry Swales
  • Wet Swales
Unlike drainage channels which are intended to be used only for conveyance, water quality swales and grass channels are designed to treat the required water quality volume and incorporate specific features to enhance their stormwater pollutant removal effectiveness. Water quality swales have higher pollutant removal efficiencies than grass channels.

Ability to Meet Massachusetts Stormwater Management Standards

2 - Peak FlowWith careful design may be able to reduce peak flow at small sites
3 - RechargeMay not be used to satisfy Standard 3
4 - TSS RemovalWet swales and dry swales achieve 70% TSS removal when provided with a pretreatment device such as a sediment forebay with a check dam.
5 - Higher Pollutant LoadingDry swale recommended as pretreatment BMP. Must be lined. For some land uses with higher potential pollutant load, an oil grit separator or equivalent may be required before discharge to the swale.
6 - Discharges near or to Critical AreasDry and Wet Swales recommended as treatment BMPs for cold-water fisheries. Must be lined unless 44% TSS has been removed before discharge to swale. Should not be used near shellfish growing areas and bathing beaches.
7 - RedevelopmentRecommended for redevelopments and urban applications if sufficient land is available.

Pollutant Removal Efficiencies

  • Total Suspended Solids (TSS)
    • Dry Swale 70%
    • Wet Swale 70%
  • Total Nitrogen - 10% to 90%
  • Total Phosphorus 20% to 90%
  • Metals (copper, lead, zinc, cadmium) Insufficient data
  • Pathogens (coliform, e coli) Insufficient data


  • May be used to replace more expensive curb and gutter systems.
  • Roadside swales provide water quality and quantity control benefits, while reducing driving hazards by keeping stormwater flows away from street surfaces.
  • Accents natural landscape.
  • Compatible with LID designs
  • Can be used to retrofit drainage channels and grass channels
  • Little or no entrapment hazard for amphibians or other small animals


  • Higher degree of maintenance required than for curb and gutter systems.
  • Roadside swales are subject to damage from off-street parking, snow removal, and winter deicing.
  • Subject to erosion during large storms
  • Individual dry swales treat a relatively small area
  • Impractical in areas with very flat grades, steep topography or poorly drained soils
  • Wet swales can produce mosquito breeding habitat
  • Should be set back from shellfish growing areas and bathing beaches


Inspect swales to make sure vegetation is adequate and slopes are not eroding. Check for rilling and gullying. Repair eroded areas and revegetate.The first few months after construction and twice a year thereafter.
Mow dry swales. Wet swales may not need to be mowed depending on vegetation.As needed.
Remove sediment and debris manuallyAt least once a year
Re-seedAs necessary

Special Features

There are two types of swales that may be used to satisfy the Stormwater Management Standards – dry swales and wet swales.

Dry Swale

Dry swales are designed to temporarily hold the water quality volume of a storm in a pool or series of pools created by permanent check dams at culverts or driveway crossings. The soil bed consists of native soils or highly permeable fill material, underlaid by an underdrain system.

Wet Swale

Wet swales also temporarily store and treat the required water quality volume. However, unlike dry swales, wet swales are constructed directly within existing soils and are not underlaid by a soil filter bed or underdrain system. Wet swales store the water quality volume within a series of cells within the channel, which may be formed by berms or check dams and may contain wetland vegetation (Metropolitan Council, 2001). The pollutant removal mechanisms in wet swales are similar to those of stormwater wetlands, which rely on sedimentation, adsorption, and microbial breakdown.

Water Swales


Use water quality swales
  • As part of a treatment train
  • As one of the best BMPs for areas discharging to cold-water fisheries if they are lined.
  • As one of the best BMPs for redevelopments and urban applications.
  • For residential and institutional settings (especially dry swales)
Water quality swales have many uses. Dry swales are most applicable to residential and institutional land uses of low to moderate density where the percentage of impervious cover in the contributing areas is relatively low. Wet swales may not be appropriate for some residential applications, such as frontage lots, because they contain standing water that may attract mosquitoes.

Water quality swales may also be used in parking lots to break up areas of impervious cover. Along the edge of small roadways, use water quality swales in place of curb and gutter systems. Water quality swales may not be suitable for sites with many driveway culverts or extensive sidewalk systems. When combining water quality swales with roadways and sidewalks, place the swale between the two impervious areas (e.g. between road and sidewalk or in-between north and south bound lanes of a roadway/highway).

The topography and soils on the site will determine what is appropriate. The topography should provide sufficient slope and cross-sectional area to maintain non-erosive flow velocities. Porous soils are best suited to dry swales, while soils with poor drainage or high groundwater conditions are more suited to wet swales. Design water quality swales to retain and treat the required water quality volume. Because they must also be designed to convey the 2-year and 10-year 24-hour storms, they may have to convey additional runoff volume to other downgradient BMPs.

Planning Considerations

The primary factors to consider when designing a water quality swale are soil characteristics, flow capacity, erosion resistance, and vegetation. Site conditions and design specifications limit the use of water quality swales.

Swale storage capacity should be based on the maximum expected reduction in velocity that occurs during the annual peak growth period. Usually the maximum expected drop in velocity occurs when vegetation is at its maximum growth for the year. Use the minimum level when checking velocity through the swale or the ability of the swale to convey the 2-year 24-hour storm without erosion. This usually occurs during the early growing season and dormant periods.

Other important factors to consider are land availability, maintenance requirements and soil characteristics. The topography of the site should allow for the design of a swale with sufficient slope and cross-sectional area to maintain a non-erosive flow rate, and to retain or detain the required water quality volume. The longitudinal slope of the swale should be as close to zero as possible and not greater than 5%. The grass or vegetation types used in swales should be suited to the soil and water conditions. Wetland hydrophytes (plants adapted to grow in water) or obligate species (i.e., species that occur 99% of the time under natural conditions in wetlands) are generally more water-tolerant than facultative species (i.e., species that occur 67% to 99% of the time under natural conditions in wetlands) and are good selections for wet swales, while dry swales should be planted with species that produce fine and dense cover and are adapted to varying moisture conditions.


See the following for complete design references: Site Planning for Urban Stream Protection. 1995. Schueler. Center for Watershed Protection.

Watershed Protection Techniques, Volume 2, Number 2, 1996. Center for Watershed Protection. Biofiltration swale performance, recommendations, and design considerations. 1992. Metro Seattle: Water Pollution Control Department, Seattle, WA.

Access for maintenance must be incorporated into both designs. The maintenance access way must be a minimum of 15 feet wide on at least one longitudinal side of the swale to enable a maintenance truck to drive along the swale and gain access to any one point. When constructed along a highway, the breakdown lane can be used as the access. When constructed in a residential subdivision, an on-street parking lane may double as the maintenance access, provided signs are posted indicating no parking is allowed during periods when the swales are being maintained.

Dry Swales

  • Size dry swales to provide adequate residence time for the required water quality volume. Hydraulic Residence Time (HRT) must be a minimum of 9 minutes. Use Manning’s Equation to determine the HRT.
  • Dry swales should have a soil bed that is a minimum of 18 inches deep and composed of approximately 50% sand and 50% loam.
  • Pretreatment is required to protect the filtering and infiltration capacity of the swale bed. Pretreatment of piped flows is generally a sediment forebay behind a check dam with a pipe inlet. For lateral inflows (sheet flow), use a vegetated filter strip on a gentle slope or a "pea gravel diaphragm."
  • Design dry swales to completely empty between storms. Where soils do not permit full dewatering between storms, place a longitudinal perforated underpipe on the bottom of the swale bed. The inter-event period used in design to dewater the swale must be no more than 72 hours.
  • Dry swales must have parabolic or trapezoidal cross-sections, with side slopes no greater than 3:1 (horizontal: vertical) and bottom widths ranging from 2 to 8 feet.
  • Size dry swales to convey the 10-year storm and design swale slopes and backs to prevent erosion during the 2-year event. At least one foot of freeboard must be provided above the volume expected for the 10-year storm.
  • Make sure that the seasonal high water table is not within 2 to 4 feet of the dry swale bottom.
  • Use outlet protection at any discharge point from a dry swale to prevent scour at the outlet.

Wet Swales

  • Size wet swales to retain the required water quality volume.
  • Use wet swales only where the water table is at or near the soil surface or where soil types are poorly drained. When the swale is excavated, keep the swale bed soils.
  • Pretreatment is required to protect the filtering and infiltration capacity of the wet swale bed. Pretreatment is generally a sediment forebay behind a check dam with a pipe inlet. For lateral inflows, use gentle slopes or a pea gravel diaphragm.
  • Use check dams in wet swales to achieve multiple cells. Use V-notched weirs in the check dams to direct low flow volumes.
  • Plant emergent vegetation or place wetland soils on the wet swale bottom for seed stock.
  • Wet swales are parabolic or trapezoidal in cross- section, with side slopes no greater than 3:1 (horizontal: vertical) and bottom widths ranging from 2 to 8 feet.
  • Size wet swales to convey the 10-year 24-hour storm and design wet swale slopes to prevent erosion during the 2-year 24-hour event.
  • Use outlet protection at any discharge point from wet swales to prevent scour at the outlet.


Use temporary erosion and sediment controls during construction. Select the vegetation mix to suit the characteristics of the site. Seeding will require mulching with appropriate materials, such as mulch matting, straw, and wood chips. Anchor the mulch immediately after seeding. Water new seedlings well until they are established. Refer to "Massachusetts Erosion and Sediment Control Guidelines for Urban and Suburban Areas: A Guide for Planners, Designers, and Municipal Officials" for information on seeding and mulching.


Incorporate a maintenance and inspection schedule into the design to ensure the effectiveness of water quality swales. Inspect swales during the first few months after installation to make sure that the vegetation in the swales becomes adequately established. Thereafter, inspect swales twice a year. During the inspections, check the swales for slope integrity, soil moisture, vegetative health, soil stability, soil compaction, soil erosion, ponding and sedimentation.

Regular maintenance includes mowing, fertilizing, liming, watering, pruning, and weed and pest control. Mow swales at least once per year. Do not cut the grass shorter than three to four inches, otherwise the effectiveness of the vegetation in reducing flow velocity and removing pollutants may be reduced. Do not let grass height exceed 6 inches.

Manually remove sediment and debris at least once per year, and periodically re-seed, if necessary, to maintain a dense growth of vegetation. Take care to protect water quality swales from snow removal and disposal practices and off-street parking. When grass water quality swales are located on private residential property, the operation and maintenance plan must clearly identify the property owner who is responsible for carrying out the required maintenance. If the operation and maintenance plan calls for maintenance of water quality swales on private properties to be accomplished by a public entity or an association (e.g. homeowners association), maintenance easements must be secured.