If you’ve ever enjoyed the sight of rain drops clinging to every leaf of a tree after a storm, you have observed one of the ways trees manage stormwater.
Forests intercept rainwater in the tree canopy, and slow its fall to the forest floor where it is absorbed and filtered before any excess gradually moves to streams. A forest can absorb at least 12 inches of precipitation per hour before surface water begins to move toward natural channels. In urban and suburban areas, with limited tree canopy, heavy rainfall hits the ground immediately and accumulates on impermeable surfaces, causing flooding.
As rainstorms increase in frequency and intensity, flooded roads, neighborhoods, and basements have become critical problems for municipalities and residents. Storm water run-off from impermeable surfaces too often exceeds the capacity of urban and suburban systems. Engineered solutions to flood control are complicated, expensive, and controversial, so urban planners are increasingly considering “green infrastructure” – essentially, managing stormwater by changing how we landscape.
Trees not only remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, feed and shelter wildlife, and reduce energy demand for cooling, they are also the most cost-effective way to manage stormwater. Trees and related landscaping can keep excess water off of roadways, and out of your basement.
Trees manage stormwater in several critical ways. If you’ve ever sheltered from rain by moving under a tree, you’ve experienced “interception.” The tree canopy catches rain and holds raindrops on every leaf, twig, stem, and branch until they evaporate after the storm. A mature evergreen can intercept more than 4,000 gallons of rainwater in a year. In a suburban setting, a single deciduous tree intercepts 500 to 760 gallons per year. And a recent experiment demonstrated that even a small flowering tree can intercept 58 gallons of storm water during a ½ inch rain event, or about 67% of the rain that falls on its canopy. Intercepted stormwater never even touches the ground, so it cannot become run-off or cause flooding.
Rainwater that is not intercepted by the canopy and hits the ground is called “throughfall.” Tree roots, which typically spread at least as wide as the tree canopy and are concentrated in the top 18 to 24 inches of soil, break up compacted soil so that more throughfall infiltrates and is absorbed by the ground. Ground water is then taken up by tree roots, transported to the leaves, and used in photosynthesis. That water ultimately is released back into the atmosphere in a process called “evapotranspiration.”
Trees consume or “transpire” an enormous amount of water. A single mature oak tree can transpire more than 40,000 gallons of water per year! Homeowners who take down mature trees may be shocked to realize that all of that water becomes run-off and a source of flooding when the tree is gone.
A tree surrounded by pavement or lawn takes up less water than a tree in the forest or a tree accompanied by other plants. Leaf litter, groundcovers, and understory plants dramatically increase the ability of the soil to absorb stormwater. By increasing organic matter and leaf surface under trees, both the amount of stormwater held, and the amount available to the tree for evapotranspiration, are increased significantly.
By contrast, lawn grass is barely more effective than pavement at reducing stormwater run-off. The roots of turf grass are only about 2 inches deep and do not retain much water. Mowing, removing lawn clippings, and using leaf blowers all have the effect of compacting lawn and reducing organic matter in the soil, further reducing its ability to take up water. Automatic irrigation systems, programmed to top-water lawn every couple of days without regard to rainfall, add to run-off problems.
Worse, in most communities, storm drains do not channel run-off into sewage treatment facilities, but directly into local waterways, so the chemical fertilizers and pesticides typically applied to lawns are transported by stormwater run-off to our waterways. Pesticides, applied to lawn annually at 10 times the rate used by farmers, are a leading source of water pollution, contaminating groundwater, freshwater streams, rivers, and coastal waters. Lawn fertilizer, washed into storm drains, causes algae blooms and excessive weed growth in waterways.
Suburban residents can make their yards into “green infrastructure” by reducing lawn and planting densely with native trees and other plants. Parking lots, road medians, church and school grounds, apartment complexes, and any place with lawn or paved surfaces can be added to green infrastructure by planting native trees and landscape plants wherever possible. The best way to prevent stormwater run-off from flooding your basement, blocking your street, and reaching our rivers is to capture it in your own yard with the beautiful trees and plants native to our area.