In Praise of Open Ditches

More Effective, Cheaper, Easier to Maintain, Better for the Environment than Buried Stormwater Pipes

May 22, 2023

For several years a controversy over open drainage ditches has been swirling around the city of Houston. We’ve been scraping behind the scenes, trying to clear up some of the misunderstanding. But the flow of misinformation hardly slows.

The basic misunderstanding is that roadside drainage ditches — grass-lined, maybe filled with lilies, cattails, frogs, fishes, crawdads — don’t work as well as concrete curbs on the street funneling stormwater through metal drains and into buried concrete pipes.

Nope. Wrong. Except in dense urban areas completely covered in impermeable surface, earthen stormwater ditches work much better than concrete street curbs and buried pipes, according to our expert sources.

A drainage ditch next to the Picnic Loop in Houston’s Memorial Park, which was originally constructed with open roadside ditches. In recent years concrete curbs were added in some areas. Photo June 20, 2022

An Age-Old Prejudice

It’s an age-old prejudice. People look at earthen ditches and think they are backwards. Too rural, rudimentary, unfinished. Concrete is surely more modern, more advanced! (Other people look at flowering roadside ditches and think: how lovely. They look at a brutal concrete curb and sense that the earth is being smothered.)

Developers discovered this long ago. Private developers are responsible for installing drainage systems in new residential areas, systems which are then turned over to the city for maintenance. Over time developers found that while some people appreciated the natural aesthetic and function of vegetated open ditches, home buyers often viewed ditches with distaste, as noted in a comparative study of The Woodlands. (p. 2) So, despite being more expensive and less effective, developers switched to concrete curbs and buried pipes solely in order to sell more homes. It had nothing to do with function. It was purely aesthetic.

How Much More Effective, More Beneficial? Ten Times More

Open ditches can hold more than ten times as much stormwater as buried pipes, among other important benefits. A typical 3.5-foot-deep roadside ditch 1,000 feet long holds 325,900 gallons of stormwater, according to the City of Houston Department of Public Works. By comparison 1,000 linear feet of 24-inch diameter pipe holds only 23,488 gallons.

Note, however, that the City is not fond of all that pretty greenery inside the ditch, even if it helps filter trash and nasty stuff from the water.

A mowed and scraped drainage ditch in Houston’s Heights neighborhood. Photo May 7, 2021

People assume that open ditches foster mosquitoes. But in fact mosquitos are more likely to breed in pipes and in catch basins under storm drains. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, mosquitoes breed in shallow water – less than 3 feet – that has been standing for at least 7 days. The agency actually recommends replacing curbs and gutters with open ditches.

Concrete Increases Flooding

The reason is that open ditches have more co-benefits than storm sewers and culverts, as noted in a recent watershed study by the US Army Corps of Engineers. (p. 14) Ditches help cleanse polluted stormwater runoff, allow the earth to soak up rain, and are cheaper and easier to install and maintain. (p. 22) Curbs and gutters, on the other hand, actually increase flooding by collecting more water faster, eventually overwhelming our built and natural drainage systems (creeks and bayous), according to the National Research Council. (p. 183) And pipes settle and crack and need to be replaced. Ditches don’t.

Note that Houston property owners actually get a modest drainage fee reduction for having an open ditch, which is considered pervious surface, which helps reduce runoff and flooding.

Maintenance. Another Misunderstanding

No, property owners do not have to maintain the ditches in front of their property. Yes, they are responsible for picking trash or other debris out of the ditch that might block the flow of water in front of their house. This is equally true in lower-income neighborhoods and well-to-do neighborhoods, like Hunters Creek Village in west Houston (actually a separate municipality). (p. 263)

But the Ditch Maintenance Section of Houston Public Works is responsible for de-silting and re-grading ditches, as well as flushing culverts under driveways and streets within the city.

And yes, there are wealthy, older neighborhoods all over the city with open ditches: Memorial, Briar Oaks, historic Avondale and Courtland Place in the Montrose area, just to name a few, not to mention in the Heights, Rice Military, as well as in dense, shadeless Gulfton and other parts of southwest Houston; Sunnyside to the southeast, Scenic Woods to the northeast, and much more. Friendswood and the Woodlands, too. Usually it’s a mix of open ditches and buried pipes, perhaps a compromise, perhaps the result of ditches getting (illegally) covered over.

Problems: Dumping, Size, Complaints

The most frequently cited problem with open ditches, particularly in front of empty or sparsely inhabited areas, is illegal dumping of heavy trash and construction debris that blocks the flow during storms. The City of Houston provides facilities for residents to dispose of tires, appliances, heavy trash, tree waste, and more for free, but contractors and commercial businesses are prohibited. Privately operated landfills charge a fee. (See info here.) So likely its cheaper, quicker, and easier for some to just dump stuff where nobody’s looking.

Read the rest of this post.

3 thoughts on “In Praise of Open Ditches”

  1. Robert Gartner says:

    An excellent presentation of the value of ditches. Only occasionally now are toads able to find places to breed. One of the last was on Lovett Blvd near Taft, where after rain storms in June puddles remained long enough for the remaining toads to lay eggs. Sadly though most of the tadpoles which hatched got trampled by the wheels of vehicles which parked there at night.

  2. Dear Robert Gartner,

    So sorry to hear about the trampled tadpoles. We love the singing of frogs and toads in the evening.

  3. AJ says:

    Good report. I remember mowing our open ditches with a lawnmower. Worked pretty well.

    That was in West Oaks, but it was 60 years ago and the ditches have all been replaced with curbs and concrete.

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