Routing Runoff

By Randy Gaddo
Photos Courtesy Of Randy Gaddo

Editor’s Note: This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public. So the author will bring up issues and ask the leaders among the readership to share their knowledge and experiences.


Imagine that you’ve just prepared a ball field for the big weekend playoff game, and it looks great—the infield dirt is smoothed to perfection, and home plate and the pitcher’s mound are manicured to regulation.

Then 2 hours before the game, the rain comes, a gully-washer that starts at the top end of the tournament complex and is propelled downhill, right for your perfect field. Destruction is imminent.

But, just as the water makes its final push, it is stopped by drainage deflection and guided into a trench-drain water trough that carries it harmlessly to either side of the field to be emptied into the woods.

Although this is not unusual, this scenario doesn’t always have the same carefree conclusion. More often, poor drainage allows fields or valuable topsoil to be washed away, games to be canceled, and phones to start ringing with complaints.

Dog Park Drainage
When rainfall in some places has been historically high, drainage issues manifest themselves seemingly from out of nowhere.

Take for example the case of the Ellisville, Mo., dog park.  According to Parks and Rec Director Lisa Blumer, the dog park’s drainage issues began with water leaking from a drinking fountain and the attached dog bowl.  The problem was exacerbated by heavy spring rains, which delayed a solution.

“Originally, we determined that crushed granite would be the best solution,” she says, adding that the 1-acre dog park was under construction when it opened a year before, so the grass was not particularly healthy to begin with. With about 400 members, the park gets heavy use.

When the spring rains delayed the installation of the granite, the affected area was sodded as a temporary measure.

“But the sod has actually been doing very well there, so our plan now is that as long as the grass is doing fine and we have nice turf, we won’t add the granite unless it becomes necessary,” notes Blumer.

Ball Field Perk-Me-Up
The solution to Ellisville’s small drainage issue was relatively simple: add sod and keep it healthy.

However, drainage issues can become much more complicated, especially for sports fields, which are not always situated on the best property.  Many times, recreation land is in a low area where structures can’t be built; as a result, when the rains come, the fields take the brunt of the water runoff.

For instance, Wethersfield, Conn. (population 26,000), has clay-based soils that don’t “perk” well; that’s engineer-speak meaning the soil doesn’t allow water to drain.  As a result, a heavy rain will take some soil with it.

The town has been dealing with drainage issues for a long time.  In 1998, during a year of particularly heavy spring and summer rains similar to those this year, the town had problems with park and school sports fields.  Officials hired a noted agronomist and soil scientist to study the drainage of the fields and make recommendations to the town council.

The problems in Wethersfield were significant.  One of the councilmen noted, “At the last high school Thanksgiving game, the players were playing with mud up to their ankles.”  This may make for good video, but it’s unsafe for players and disastrous for the fields.

Things have improved remarkably since then, according to Sal Cucia, assistant director of the parks and rec department. He recalls that back then the department was actively trying to develop support and seek funding to make improvements to the fields.

“Most of those fields then were built in the [19]60s and [19]70s before fields were constructed with proper drainage systems,” Cucia remarks.

He notes that new parks and rec fields have been engineered and built with drainage in mind, including proper crowning, grading, and piping to carry water away.  The high school field now has artificial turf, installed with an underground drainage system.

Cucia concedes, however, that there is still work to be done, improvements still to be made.  “We have developed grants and other capital-improvement funding to continuously make improvements when we can,” he says.

Seeking A Solution
Drainage problems at sports fields and in parks can be avoided if planning and budgeting of construction includes proper handling of water in normal to heavy rain or snow melt.  It is obviously much easier, more effective, and less expensive to plan for these solutions rather than having to retrofit them after the fact.

There are basically two solutions for handling water:

  1. Run the water off the ground’s surface, directing it around areas such as fields or parks.
  2. Pipe the water underground to proper cleaning, collection, and distribution areas.

Surface solutions are generally the least expensive and involve proper engineering and use of strategically placed bioswales, which are grassed, mulched, or rocked troughs that, if properly designed, constructed, and maintained, will gently direct water where it needs to go while filtering out pollutants before releasing it back to the watershed.

Oftentimes, though, surface solutions aren’t always feasible due to lack of space or other limiting factors; this is when underground solutions are needed. There are many products on the market that help direct water around or under fields or facilities.

The city of Carmel Clay, Ind., used a combination of these methods to deal with drainage issues in Central Park last May. The three projects involved parking lots—one was a new build, and two others required improvements.

One project, engineered and constructed with proper surface and underground drainage, replaced a temporary gravel overflow parking area with 144 parking spaces. The other two projects involved previously asphalted lots that collected water in low areas.  According to parks director Mark Westermeier, the water collection was annoying in summer, but potentially dangerous in winter.

“The lots were constructed about 7 years ago, and the problems started out to be minor but got worse over time to a point where we had to do something about them,” says Westermeier.

The solution then was relatively easy: trench the two existing parking lots and add trench drains. These formed troughs were sunk into the ground and covered with heavy plastic grills that collected water and channeled it to bioswales.

Whether drainage issues are minor or major, finding a solution is rarely a simple matter.  Some parks departments have in-house resources, but many times local resources aren’t equipped to handle the problem.  Calling in outside help can be the answer.

Westermeier notes that the solutions were well thought-out.  “We bid out the design and engineering to ensure that proper hydrology studies were done and that the solutions were going to work.”

And that is the bottom line: whether cheap and simple or expensive and complex, fixing a drainage problem is the goal. If the water is handled properly, the game field will be ready to go.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email .