How Landscaping Choices Affect Water Quality
November 04, 2019

Are you tackling a new landscaping project this fall? Sprucing up the outside of your home can boost your property value and, as real estate agents like to say, add serious “curb appeal.” Beyond increasing property value, landscaping can also improve your quality of life, according to a growing body of research. For example, tree canopies and parks are linked to stress relief, decreased crime rates, and reduced noise. Another landscaping bonus? The improvement choices you make—if approached thoughtfully—can help restore water quality and protect aquatic ecosystems.

But first, some quick background—and it all starts with managing stormwater runoff.

When precipitation occurs, water rushes across impermeable surfaces (such as paved streets, driveways, and rooftops) instead of soaking into the ground. As water travels, it picks up pollutants like trash, nutrients, and oils, and flows into storm drains.

Rain gardens absorb 30% more water than the same size of area of lawn

In some cities with combined sewer systems, stormwater and raw sewage are transported to wastewater facilities for treatment before being discharged to water bodies. When the capacity of these combined sewer systems is exceeded, the untreated sewage and stormwater discharge into nearby waters, which is toxic to fish, plants, and other aquatic species. More than 750 US cities have sewage systems that overflow into nearby waterways during large storms. This translates to an estimated 10 trillion gallons of untreated water polluting waterways each year.

Help restore natural infiltration through green infrastructure, a cost-effective and sustainable approach to managing stormwater. It captures and/or moves precipitation away from buildings, relying less on built systems like sewers.


Reduce stormwater by adopting green infrastructure practices at home.

Need some strategies to reduce runoff from your home? No matter the size of your yard, try these ideas:

  • Use a rain barrel to capture water from your roof. Then reuse it to irrigate your garden or refill a bird bath. Note: Some states prohibit the collection of rainwater, while others offer incentives for installing rain barrels. Check with your state and local water resource or environmental agency for details before purchasing or building one.
  • Build rain gardens—shallow, planted basins—to collect and absorb runoff from rooftops, sidewalks, and streets. Limited in space? Add some potted plants on your porch or patio.
  • Plant trees or preserve existing ones. Trees decrease and slow runoff by providing a tree canopy of leaves and branches. This helps to reduce erosion—a major contributor to pollutants carried by stormwater. Plus, their roots drink up water from soil.
  • Install permeable pavement on driveways and walkways to allow water to infiltrate the ground.
  • Point downspouts onto grass or gravel rather than paved surfaces to reduce the amount of polluted water that runs off your property.

Green infrastructure may already be having a positive impact on aquatic health. A recent study found bioretention areas effective in reducing stormwater's toxicity to multiple aquatic species like salmon. Visit the EPA website to learn more about green infrastructure and its many benefits, including flood protection and urban cooling.


Lisa Beach is a freelance journalist and copywriter. Her work has been published in The New York Times, Eating Well, USA Today Go Escape, Good Housekeeping, YES! Magazine, and dozens more. Check out her writer's website at