An infiltration basin is a shallow impoundment which is designed to infiltrate stormwater into the soil. This practice is believed to have a high pollutant removal efficiency and can also help recharge the ground water, thus increasing baseflow to stream systems. Infiltration basins can be challenging to apply on many sites, however, because of soils requirements. In addition, some studies have shown relatively high failure rates compared with other management practices.
Infiltration basins have select applications. Their use is often sharply restricted by concerns over ground water contamination, soils, and clogging at the site.
Infiltration basins can be utilized in most regions of the country, with some design modifications in cold and arid climates. In regions of karst (i.e., limestone) topography, these stormwater management practices may not be applied due to concerns of sink hole formation and ground water contamination.
Ultra-urban areas are densely developed urban areas in which little pervious surface exists. In these areas, few stormwater practices can be easily applied due to space limitations. Infiltration basins can rarely be applied in the ultra-urban environment.
Two features that can restrict their use are the potential of infiltrated water to interfere with existing infrastructure, and the relatively poor infiltration capacity of most urban soils. In addition, while they consume only the space of the infiltration basin site itself, they need a continuous, relatively flat area. Thus, it is more difficult to fit them into small unusable areas on a site.
Stormwater Hot Spots
A stormwater hot spot is an area where land use or activities generate highly contaminated runoff, with concentrations of pollutants in excess of those typically found in stormwater. Infiltration basins should never receive runoff from stormwater hot spots, unless the stormwater has already been treated by another practice. This caution is due to potential ground water contamination.
A stormwater retrofit is a stormwater practice (usually structural) put into place after development has occurred, to improve water quality, protect downstream channels, reduce flooding, or meet other specific objectives. Infiltration basins have limited applications as a stormwater retrofit. Their use is restricted by three factors. First, infiltration basins should be used to treat small sites (less than 5 acres). Practices that are applied to small sites, such as infiltration basins, are generally a high-cost retrofit option in terms of construction cost and the maintenance burden associated with the large number of practices needed to retrofit a watershed. Second, it is often difficult to find areas where soils are appropriate for infiltration in an already urban or suburban environment. Finally, infiltration basins are best applied to small sites, yet need a flat, relatively continuous area. It is often difficult to find sites with this type of area available.
Cold Water (Trout) Streams
Infiltration basins are an excellent option for cold water streams because they encourage infiltration of stormwater and maintain dry weather flow. Because stormwater travels underground to the stream, it has little opportunity to increase in temperature.
Siting and Design Considerations
When designing infiltration basins, designers need to carefully consider both the restrictions on the site and design features to improve the long-term performance of the practice.
Infiltration practices need to be located extremely carefully. In particular, designers need to ensure that the soils on the site are appropriate for infiltration, and that designs minimize the potential for ground water contamination and long-term maintenance problems.
Infiltration basins have historically been used as regional facilities, serving for both quantity and quality control. In some regions of the country, this practice is feasible, particularly if the soils are particularly sandy. In most areas, however, infiltration basins experience high rates of failure when used in this manner. In general, the practice is best applied to relatively small drainage areas (i.e., less than 10 acres).
The bottom of infiltration basins needs to be completely flat to allow infiltration throughout the entire basin bottom.
Soils and topography are strongly limiting factors when locating infiltration practices. Soils must be significantly permeable to ensure that the practice can infiltrate quickly enough to reduce the potential for clogging, and soils that infiltrate too rapidly may not provide sufficient treatment, creating the potential for ground water contamination. The infiltration rate should range between 0.5 and 3 inches per hour. In addition, the soils should have no greater than 20 percent clay content, and less than 40 percent silt/clay content (MDE, 2000). Finally, infiltration basins may not be used in regions of karst topography, due to the potential for sinkhole formation or ground water contamination.
Designers always need to provide significant separation distance (2 to 5 feet) from the bottom of the infiltration basin and the seasonally high ground water table, to reduce the risk of contamination. Infiltration practices should also be separated from drinking water wells.
Specific designs may vary considerably, depending on site constraints or preferences of the designer or community. There are some features, however, that should be incorporated into most infiltration basin designs. These design features can be divided into five basic categories: pretreatment, treatment, conveyance, maintenance reduction, and landscaping.
Pretreatment refers to design features that provide settling of large particles before runoff reaches a management practice, easing the long-term maintenance burden. Pretreatment is important for all structural management practices, but it is particularly important for infiltration practices. In order to ensure that pretreatment mechanisms are effective, designers should incorporate "multiple pretreatment," using practices such as grassed swales, sediment basins, and vegetated filter strips in series.
Treatment design features enhance the pollutant removal of a practice. For infiltration practices, designers need to stabilize upland soils to ensure that the basin does not become clogged with sediment. In addition, the facility needs to be sized so that the volume of water to be treated infiltrates through the bottom in a given amount of time. Because infiltration basins are designed in this manner, infiltration basins designed on less permeable soils should be significantly larger than those designed on more permeable soils.
Stormwater needs to be conveyed through stormwater management practices safely and in a way that minimizes erosion. Designers need to be particularly careful in ensuring that channels leading to an infiltration practice are designed to minimize erosion. In general, infiltration basins should be designed to treat only small storms (i.e., only for water quality). Thus, these practices should be designed "off-line," using a flow separator to divert only small flows to the practice.
In addition to regular maintenance activities, designers also need to incorporate features into the design to ensure that the maintenance burden of a practice is reduced. These features can make regular maintenance activities easier or reduce the need to perform maintenance. In infiltration basins, designers need to provide access to the basin for regular maintenance activities. Where possible, a means to drain the basin, such as an underdrain, should be provided in case the bottom becomes clogged. This feature allows the basin to be drained and accessed for maintenance in the event that the water has ponded in the basin bottom or the soil is saturated.
Landscaping can enhance the aesthetic value of stormwater practices or improve their function. In infiltration basins, the most important purpose of vegetation is to reduce the tendency of the practice to clog. Upland drainage needs to be properly stabilized with a thick layer of vegetation, particularly immediately following construction. In addition, providing a thick turf at the basin bottom helps encourage infiltration and prevent the formation of rills in the basin bottom.
Some modifications may be needed to ensure the performance of infiltration basins in arid and cold climates.
Arid or Semi-Arid Climates
In arid regions, infiltration practices are often highly recommended because of the need to recharge the ground water. In arid regions, designers need to emphasize pretreatment even more strongly to ensure that the practice does not clog, because of the high sediment concentrations associated with stormwater runoff in areas such as the Southwest. In addition, the basin bottom may be planted with drought-tolerant species and/or covered with an alternative material such as sand or gravel.
In extremely cold climates (i.e., regions that experience permafrost), infiltration basins may be an infeasible option. In most cold climates, infiltration basins can be a feasible practice, but there are some challenges to its use. First, the practice may become inoperable during some portions of the year when the surface of the basin becomes frozen. Other design features also may be incorporated to deal with the challenges of cold climates. One such challenge is the volume of runoff associated with the spring snowmelt event. The capacity of the infiltration basin might be increased to account for snowmelt volume.
Another option is the use of a seasonably operated facility (Oberts, 1994). A seasonally operated infiltration/detention basin combines several techniques to improve the performance of infiltration practices in cold climates. Two features, the underdrain system and level control valves, are useful in cold climates. These features are used as follows: At the beginning of the winter season, the level control valve is opened and the soil is drained. As the snow begins to melt in the spring, the underdrain and the level control valves are closed. The snowmelt is infiltrated until the capacity of the soil is reached. Then, the facility acts as a detention facility, providing storage for particles to settle.
Other design features can help to minimize problems associated with winter conditions, particularly concerns that chlorides from road salting may contaminate ground water. The basin may be disconnected during the winter to ensure that chlorides do not enter the ground water in areas where this is a problem, or if the basin is used to treat roadside runoff. Designers may also want to reconsider application of infiltration practices on parking lots or roads where deicing is used, unless it is confirmed that the practice will not cause elevated chloride levels in the ground water. If the basin is used for snow storage, or to treat roadside or parking lot runoff, the basin bottom should be planted with salt-tolerant vegetation.
Although infiltration basins can be useful practices, they have several limitations. Infiltration basins are not generally aesthetic practices, particularly if they clog. If infiltration basins are designed and maintained so that standing water is left for no more than 3 days, mosquitoes should not be a problem. However, if an infiltration basin becomes clogged and takes 4 or more days to drain, the basin could become a source for mosquitoes. In addition, these practices are challenging to apply because of concerns over ground water contamination and sufficient soil infiltration. Finally, maintenance of infiltration practices can be burdensome, and they have a relatively high rate of failure.
Regular maintenance is critical to the successful operation of infiltration basins (see Table 1). Historically, infiltration basins have had a poor track record. In one study conducted in Prince George's County, Maryland (Galli, 1992), all of the infiltration basins investigated clogged within 2 years. This trend may not be the same in soils with high infiltration rates. A study of 23 infiltration basins in the Pacific Northwest showed better long-term performance in an area with highly permeable soils (Hilding, 1996). In this study, few of the infiltration basins had failed after 10 years.
Table 1. Typical maintenance activities for infiltration basins (Source: Modified from WMI, 1997)
- Inspect facility for signs of wetness or damage to structures
- Note eroded areas.
- If dead or dying grass on the bottom is observed, check to ensure that water percolates 2-3 days following storms.
- Note signs of petroleum hydrocarbon contamination and handle properly.
- Mow and remove litter and debris.
- Stabilize of eroded banks.
- Repair undercut and eroded areas at inflow and outflow structures.
- Disc or otherwise aerate bottom.
- Dethatch basin bottom.
- Scrape bottom and remove sediment. Restore original cross-section and infiltration rate.
- Seed or sod to restore ground cover.
Structural management practices can be used to achieve four broad resource protection goals. These include flood control, channel protection, ground water recharge, and pollutant removal. Infiltration basins can provide ground water recharge and pollutant removal.
Ground Water Recharge
Infiltration basins recharge the ground water because runoff is treated for water quality by filtering through the soil and discharging to ground water.
Very little data are available regarding the pollutant removal associated with infiltration basins. It is generally assumed that they have very high pollutant removal because none of the stormwater entering the practice remains on the surface. Schueler (1987) estimated pollutant removal for infiltration basins based on data from land disposal of wastewater. The average pollutant removal, assuming the infiltration basin is sized to treat the runoff from a 1-inch storm, is:
These removal efficiencies assume that the infiltration basin is well designed and maintained. The information in the Siting and Design Considerations and Maintenance Considerations sections represent the best available information on how to properly design these practices. The design references below also provide additional information.
Infiltration basins are relatively cost-effective practices because little infrastructure is needed when constructing them. One study estimated the total construction cost at about $2 per ft3 (adjusted for inflation) of storage for a 0.25-acre basin (SWRPC, 1991). Infiltration basins typically consume about 2 to 3 percent of the site draining to them, which is relatively small. Maintenance costs are estimated at 5 to 10 percent of construction costs.
One cost concern associated with infiltration practices is the maintenance burden and longevity. If improperly maintained, infiltration basins have a high failure rate (see Maintenance Considerations). Thus, it may be necessary to replace the basin after a relatively short period of time.
Galli, J. 1992. Analysis of Urban BMP Performance and Longevity in Prince George's County, Maryland. Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Washington, DC.
Hilding, K. 1996. Longevity of infiltration basins assessed in Puget Sound. Watershed Protection Techniques 1(3):124-125.
Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). 2000. Maryland Stormwater Design Manual. [http://www.mde.state.md.us/environment/wma/stormwatermanual ]. Accessed May 22, 2001.
Oberts, G. 1994. Performance of Stormwater Ponds and Wetlands in Winter. Watershed Protection Techniques 1(2): 64-68.
Schueler, T. 1987. Controlling Urban Runoff: A Practical Manual for Planning and Designing Urban BMPs. Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Washington, DC.
Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SWRPC). 1991. Costs of Urban Nonpoint Source Water Pollution Control Measures. Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, Waukesha, WI.
Watershed Management Institute (WMI). 1997. Operation, Maintenance, and Management of Stormwater Management Systems. Prepared for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water, Washington, DC.
Center for Watershed Protection (CWP). 1997. Stormwater BMP Design Supplement for Cold Climates. Prepared for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds. Washington, DC.
Ferguson, B.K., 1994. Stormwater Infiltration. CRC Press, Ann Arbor, MI.
USEPA. 1993. Guidance to Specify Management Measures for Sources of Nonpoint Pollution in Coastal Waters. EPA-840-B-92-002. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Washington, DC.