The Trump campaign has been claiming it wants to “drain the swamp,” that is to dispossess Washington’s inbred army of academic consultants, lobbyists, and reporter-spin doctors, but the motto got me to think, how would you drain a swamp literally? First some technical definitions. Technically speaking, a swamp is a type of wetland distinct from a marsh in that it has no significant flow. The water just, sort-of sits there. A swamp is also unlike a fen or a bog in that swamp water contains enough oxygen to support life: frogs, mosquitos, alligators,., while a fen or bog does not. Common speech ignores these distinctions, and so will I.
If you want to drain a large swamp, such as The Great Dismal Swamp that covered the south-east US, or the smaller, but still large, Hubbard Swamp that covered south-eastern Oakland county, MI, the classic way is to dig a system of open channel ditches that serve as artificial rivers. These ditches are called drains, and I suppose the phrase, “drain the swamp comes” from them. As late as the 1956 drain code, the width of these ditch-drains was specified in units of rods. A rod is 16.5 feet, or 1/4 of a chain, that is 1/4 the length of the 66′ surveyor’s chains used in the 1700’s to 1800’s. Go here for the why these odd engineering units exist and persist. Typically, 1/4 rod wide ditches are still used for roadside drainage, but to drain a swamp, the still-used, 1956 code calls for a minimum of a 1 rod width at the top and a minimum of 1/4 rod, 4 feet, at the bottom. The sides are to slope no more than 1:1. This geometry is needed. experience shows, to slow the flow, avoid soil erosion and help keep the sides from caving in. It is not unusual to add one or more weirs to control and slow the flow. These weirs also help you measure the flow.
The main drain for Royal Oak and Warren townships, about 50 square miles, is the Red Run drain. For its underground length, it is 66 foot wide, a full chain, and 25 feet deep (1.5 rods). When it emerges from under ground at Dequindre rd, it expands to a 2 chain wide, open ditch. The Red Run ditch has no weirs resulting in regular erosion and a regular need for dredging; I suspect the walls are too steep too. Our county needs more and more drainage as more and more housing and asphalt is put in. Asphalt reduces rain absorption and makes for flash floods following any rain of more than 1″. The red run should be improved, and more drains are needed, or Oakland county will become a flood-prone, asphalt swamp.
Ditch drains are among the cheapest ways to drain a swamp. Standard sizes cost only about $10/lineal foot, but they are pretty ugly in my opinion, they fill up with garbage, and they tend to be unsafe. Jaguars running back Denard Robinson was lucky to have survived running into one in his car (above) earlier this year. Ditches can become mosquito breeding grounds, too and many communities have opted for a more expensive option: buried, concrete or metal culverts. These are safer for the motorist, but reduce ground absorption and flow. In many places, we’ve buried whole rivers. We’ve no obvious swamps but instead we get regular basement and road flooding, as the culverts still have combined storm and sanitary (toilet) sewage, and as more and more storm water is sent through the same old culverts.
Given my choice I would separate the sewers, add weirs to some of our ditch drains, weirs, daylight some of the hidden rivers, and put in French drains and bioswales, where appropriate. These are safer and better looking than ditches but they tend to cost about $100 per lineal foot, about 10x more than ditch drains. This is still 70x cheaper than the $7000/ft, combined sewage tunnel cisterns that our current Oakland water commissioner has been putting in. His tunnel cisterns cost about $13/gallon of water retention, and continue to cause traffic blockage.
Another solution is trees, perhaps the cheapest solution to drain a small swamp or retention pond, A full-grown tree will transpire hundreds of gallons per day into the air, and they require no conduit connecting the groundwater to a river. Trees look nice and can complement French drains and bioswales where there is drainage to river. You want a species that is water tolerant, low maintenance, and has exceptional transpiration. Options include the river birch, the red maple, and my favorite, the bald cypress (picture). Bald cypress trees can live over 1000 years and can grow over 150 feet tall — generally straight up. When grown in low-oxygen, bog water, they develop knees — bits of root-wood that extend above the water. These aid oxygen absorption and improve tree-stability. Cypress trees were used extensively to drain the swamps of Israel, and hollowed-out cypress logs were the first pipes used to carry Detroit drinking water. Some of these pipes remain; they are remarkably rot-resistant.
Robert E Buxbaum, December 2, 2016. I ran for water commissioner of Oakland county, MI 2016, and lost. I’m an engineer. While teaching at Michigan State, I got an appreciation for what you could do with trees, grasses, and drains.