Not that long ago, Iowa consisted of nearly 80 percent prairie with plants and soil that could easily soak up stormwater with little to no runoff after heavy rains. Today, with drastic changes in land use, things have changed. With so many impervious surfaces (surfaces that shed water, such as roofs and concrete), runoff is forced quickly down storm drains and straight into local water bodies. Here are some ways to soak up more water in your yard to help prevent erosion and flooding in your lawn and home, as well as keeping polluted runoff from going down the storm drains:
A shallow depression in the ground, anchored with beautiful native plants, rain gardens capture runoff from impervious surfaces, like the roof and driveway and compacted soil on the yard. The rain is ponded temporarily before plants and soil soak it up. The water drains in 12 to 24 hours, but often quicker, which gives time for plants to use the water they need and pollutants to filter out.
Rain gardens help restore the landscape’s ability to manage water in a more sustainable way. These beautiful and helpful yard additions also help reduce water runoff from urban surfaces, helping protect water quality.
Native landscaping and pollinator gardens
Iowa’s native plants have root systems that grow deep into the ground, making the soil porous and able to soak up more water. Planting native plants in your yard, whether in a rain garden or other setting, can help prevent runoff, as well as giving local pollinators a place to relax and eat.
After establishment, native landscaping won’t need fertilizer, pesticides or supplemental water. Since the plants are used to Iowa’s climate, they easily survive the heat and humidity of summer. Planting a band of prairie or woodland plants on the downslope side of your yard can help absorb rainfall and runoff while also filtering out pollutants.
Rainwater is an underused resource that helps both in our yards and for our environment. Setting up a rainwater harvesting system can be as simple as placing a barrel next to a downspout, or as complex as building an elaborate rainwater storage system underground. While we often use treated water on lawns and gardens, rainwater could be used instead. This naturally soft water is better for plants, and capturing it also helps to protect water quality by preventing runoff.
Soil quality restoration
Like impervious surfaces, compacted soils cause runoff as rain and snowmelt can’t fully penetrate the surface and soak into the ground below. Soil quality restoration is one way to help improve soil health and allow more water to soak into the ground. This process adds organic matter to the soil, which increases the soil’s ability to absorb water, as well as helps your lawn grow and look green without conventional fertilizer, with benefits that can last for years.
Installing permeable pavement can also help keep rainwater out of storm drains. While this solution is more expensive, it’s useful if you have a large area of pavement like a driveway or other parking area. This type of pavement is built on layers of rock, and rainwater can slowly infiltrate into the rocks and then into surrounding soil.
Other ways you can help
If you’re not able to add a rain garden or do soil quality restoration in your yard, you can help keep pollutants out of rainwater in other ways. Some easy ways to help including cleaning outdoor spills, picking up pet waste and fixing leaks from your car. Also, keep lawn clippings in your yard or bag and compost them. Don’t dump waste products in storm drains — it’s illegal, and it goes straight into local streams without treatment.
If you’re interested in soaking up more stormwater in your yard, check to see if programs are available to help get your project started through a DNR-sponsored watershed project. You can also check with the Urban Conservationists with the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, who can help you decide which method is the best for you and your property.