Drainage Channels

From the Massachusetts Stormwater Handbook


Image of a drainagee channel Drainage channels are traditional vegetated open channels that are designed to provide for non-erosive conveyance. They receive no infiltration or TSS removal credit (Standards 3 and 4).

Ability to Meet Massachusetts Stormwater Management Standards

2 - Peak FlowProvides no peak flow attenuation
3 - RechargeProvides negligible groundwater recharge
4 - TSS Removal0% TSS removal credit
5 - Higher Pollutant LoadingUse as conveyance
6 - Discharges near or to Critical AreasMay be used to achieve temperature reduction for runoff discharging to cold-water fisheries
7 - RedevelopmentLimited applicability


  • Conveys stormwater
  • Generally less expensive than curb and gutter systems.
  • Accents natural landscape.
  • Compatible with LID design practices
  • Roadside channels reduce driving hazards by keeping stormwater flows away from street surfaces during storms


  • Higher degree of maintenance required than for curb and gutter systems.
  • Roadside channels are subject to damage from off-street parking and snow removal.
  • Provides limited pollutant removal compared to water quality swales
  • May be impractical in areas with flat grades, steep topography or poorly drained soils
  • Large area requirements for highly impervious sites.

Pollutant Removal Efficiencies

  • Total Suspended Solids (TSS) - 0%
  • Nutrients (Nitrogen, phosphorus) - Insufficient data
  • Metals (copper, lead, zinc, cadmium) - Insufficient data
  • Pathogens (coliform, e coli) - Insufficient data

Figure DC 1


adapted from the University of New Hampshire

Inspect channels to make sure vegetation is adequate and for signs of rilling and gullying. Repair any rills or gullies. Replace dead vegetation.The first few months after construction and twice a year thereafter.
Mow As necessary.Grass height shall not exceed 6 inches.
Remove sediment and debris manuallyAt least once a year
Reseed As necessary.Use of road salt or other deicers during the winter will necessitate yearly reseeding in the spring.

Special Features

Drainage channels cannot be used to meet the Stormwater Management Standards. They are a component of a larger stormwater management system and serve to convey runoff from impervious surfaces to or from stormwater treatment BMPs.

Drainage Channels

Drainage Channels versus Water Quality Swales The distinction between drainage channels and water quality swales lies in the design and planned use of the open channel conveyance. Drainage channels are designed to have sufficient capacity to convey runoff safely during large storm events without causing erosion. Drainage channels typically have a cross-section with sufficient hydraulic capacity to handle the peak discharge for the 10-year storm. The dimensions (slope and bottom width) of a drainage channel must not exceed a critical erosive velocity during the peak discharge. They must be vegetated with grasses to maintain bank and slope integrity. Other than basic channel size and geometry, there are no other design modifications to enhance pollutant removal capabilities. Therefore, pollutant removal efficiency is typically low for drainage channels.

Water quality swales and grass channels, on the other hand, are designed for the required water quality volume and incorporate specific features to enhance their stormwater pollutant removal effectiveness. Pollutant removal rates are significantly higher for water quality swales and grass channels. A water quality swale or grass channel must be used in place of the drainage channel when a water quality treatment credit is sought.


Drainage channels are suitable for residential and institutional areas of low to moderate density. The percentage of impervious cover in the contributing areas must be relatively small. Drainage channels can also be used in parking lots to break up areas of impervious cover.

Along the edge of roadways, drainage channels can be used in place of curb and gutter systems. However, the effectiveness of drainage channels may decrease as the number of driveway culverts increases. They are also generally not compatible with extensive sidewalk systems. When using drainage channels in combination with roadways and sidewalks, it is most appropriate to place the channel between the two impervious covers (e.g., between the sidewalk and roadway).

The topography of the site should allow for the design of a drainage channel with sufficient slope and cross-sectional area to maintain non-erosive flow velocities. The longitudinal slope of the swale should be as close to zero as possible and not greater than 5%.

Planning Considerations

The two primary considerations when designing a drainage channel are maximizing channel capacity and minimizing erosion. Use the maximum expected retardance when checking drainage channel capacity. Usually the greatest flow retardance occurs when vegetation is at its maximum growth for the year. This usually occurs during the early growing season and dormant periods.
Other factors to be considered when planning for the drainage channel are land availability, maintenance requirements and soil characteristics. The topography of the site should allow for the design of a drainage channel with sufficient slope and cross-sectional area to maintain a non-erosive flow velocity, generally less than five feet per second.

The shape of the cross-sectional channel is also an important planning consideration. Figure DC 1 shows three different design shapes. The V-shaped or triangular cross-section can result in higher velocities than other shapes, especially when combined with steeper side slopes, so use this design only if the quantity of flow is relatively small. The parabolic cross-section results in a wide shallow channel that is suited to handling larger flows and blends in well with natural settings. Use trapezoidal channels when deeper channels are needed to carry larger flows and conditions require relatively high velocities. Select a grass type for the channel lining that is appropriate for site conditions, including one that is able to resist shear from the design flow, is shade tolerant, is drainage tolerant, and has low maintenance requirements. Use vegetation that is water tolerant and has a dense root system. Alternatively, the drainage channel may be lined with stone.


See the following for complete design references: Site Planning for Urban Stream Protection. 1995. Schueler. Center for Watershed Protection.

The length of the drainage channel depends on the slope, contributing impervious surface area, and runoff volume. Because drainage channels with low velocities can act as sediment traps, add extra capacity to address sediment accumulation without reducing design capacity. Add an extra 0.3 to 0.5 feet of freeboard depth, if sediment accumulation is expected. Use side slopes of 3:1 or flatter to prevent side slope erosion. Make the longitudinal slope of the channel as flat as possible and not greater than 5%.

Install check dams in drainage channels when necessary to achieve velocities of 5 feet per second or less. Do not use earthen check dams because they tend to erode on the downstream side, and it is difficult to establish and maintain grass on the dams. The maximum ponding time behind the check dam should not exceed 24 hours. Use outlet protection at discharge points from a drainage channel to prevent scour at the outlet.

The design for the drainage channel must include access for maintenance. When located along a highway, provide a breakdown lane with a width of 15 feet. When located along a street, off-street parking can be doubled up as the access, provided signs are posted indicating no parking is allowed during maintenance periods. When locating drainage channels adjacent to pervious surfaces, include a 15-foot wide grass strip to provide access for maintenance trucks.


Use temporary erosion and sediment controls during construction. Soil amendments, such as aged compost that contains no biosolids, may be needed to encourage vegetation growth. Select a vegetation mix that suits the characteristics of the site. Seeding will require mulching with appropriate materials, such as mulch matting, straw, wood chips, other natural blankets, or synthetic blankets. Anchor blanket immediately after seeding. Provide new seedlings with adequate water until they are well established. Refer to the “Massachusetts Erosion and Sediment Control Guidelines for Urban and Suburban Areas: A Guide for Planners, Designers, and Municipal Officials” for information regarding seeding, mulching, and use of blankets.


The maintenance and inspection schedule should take into consideration the effectiveness of the drainage channel. Inspect drainage channels the first few months after construction to make sure that there is no rilling or gullying, and that vegetation in the channels is adequate. Thereafter, inspect the channel twice a year for slope integrity, soil moisture, vegetative health, soil stability, soil compaction, soil erosion, ponding, and sediment accumulation.

Regular maintenance tasks include mowing, fertilizing, liming, watering, pruning, weeding, and pest control. Mow channels at least once per year.
Do not cut the grass shorter than three to four inches. Keep grass height under 6 inches to maintain the design depth necessary to serve as a conveyance.
Do not mow excessively, because it may increase the design flow velocity.

Remove sediment and debris manually at least once per year. Re-seed periodically to maintain the dense growth of grass vegetation. Take care to protect drainage channels from snow removal procedures and off-street parking. When drainage channels are located on private residential property, the operation and maintenance plan must clearly specify the private property owner who is responsible for carrying out the required maintenance. If the operation and maintenance plan calls for maintenance of drainage channels on private properties to be performed by a public entity or an association (e.g. homeowners association), maintenance easements must be obtained.