Use Swales to Control Water on Your Country Lot

Author Photo
By Staff

Use Swales to Control Water on Your Country Lot

A system of swales, ditches, and catchment systems, such as ponds, will better hydrate your soil and protect your land from erosion.

By Josh Brewer, sponsored by Echo USA
June 2017

Photo by Adobe Stock/dutchlight

When water flows across your acreage, its speed and route — especially during heavy rains — affects erosion of sloped surfaces, the water quality of nearby ponds, creeks, and streams, and, ultimately, your soil moisture levels. Swales, also called contour bunds, are ditches that catch and slowly filtrate water through your soil as compared to drainage ditches, which quickly move water from your property. Swales aren’t new or overly complicated, and today a growing number of farmers, homesteaders, and ranchers in regions with heavy rains, long droughts, and dropping aquifers are taking advantage of this land management technique.

Step 1: Outline Your Swale with an A-Frame

The humble A-frame is the most important tool for building or maintaining swales, because it indicates whether your swale is on contour, or level, with the slope of your land. The size of your A-frame will depend on the length of your swale, but 5-foot boards and 8-foot boards will provide a length of run without adding too much weight.

Photo by Phil Williams, Permaculture PA

To assemble an A-frame, find two 1-by-4s or 2-by-4s, a couple scrap pieces of lumber for the horizontals, two bubble levels, and a plumb bob, if you wish. Drill and bolt the boards together to form the legs of your triangle and then attach the horizontals far enough down the legs to be comfortable for your height and the conditions that you’re working in. Measure the length of legs beneath the horizontals and make sure that they are equal. Finally, attach the levels to the horizontals. If you are adding a plumb bob, attach the string to the tip of the A so that it hangs down the center of the frame on level ground.

Once you have your A-frame, simply stand it in the location where you would like for your swale to end, find contour between the two points, and then mark points outside of the legs with flags. Move the A-frame so that the flag is outside of the leg, find a contour and mark the next point. You’ll continue in this fashion until you’ve marked the length of your swale.