Huge deep drainage ditch (what to do?)

xroxAugust 18, 2010

Our back yard is 36x27 but is completely useless to us. The grading in our backyard is just awful thanks to a deep drainage ditch at the back of our lot. The ditch is about 4-5feet deep at the most severe end and is a good 6-8 feet wide and it runs right though our yard.

We have always dreamed about filling in the yard somehow to level it and finally this year we had 5 landscaping contractors come by to take a look. All of them want to build an armor stone retaining wall around the entire back lot and fill the ditch in with gravel and weeping tiles. Then soil and sod on top.

Will this work? Is this even legal and will it handle the drainage during a storm? A good 20 homes drain through our lot.

One guy wanted to put the back retaining wall 3 feet from the fence and route the ditch in between the wall and fence. The problem with this is that there is a 5 foot drop my kids could fall into.

Any thoughts?

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tibs(5/6 OH)

Check with your government officials before you do any filling of any ditch. It probably isn't legal and could cause major problems for neighbors. You might be able to install a culvert (pipe) and backfill over it. This probaboly needs to be designed by an engineer to be the right size. Or your local County Soil and Water District may be able to help.

    Bookmark   August 18, 2010 at 8:59PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

It would be a good idea to find out if there is an easement through that part of your property, and if so, what the terms and boundaries of the easement are.

Here's some basic information about easements:
And here, with additional links lower on the page:

This is something your realtor and the lawyer who handled the purchase should have told you about (they don't always; many years ago my parents bought a house and discovered later that a natural gas pipeline crossed the property, and the gas company had very strong opinions on what couldn't be planted and couldn't be done in that 25' wide corridor -- and enforced it with twice-daily helicopter surveillance and a bulldozer that squashed the perennials and the lawn every couple of years).

    Bookmark   August 18, 2010 at 10:47PM
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Not an easement. It is a drainage swale except that it is very severe. It will cost me 1500$ to just ask the city for help on this. I can post a picture if you like.

    Bookmark   August 19, 2010 at 10:18AM
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I'm not sure where you live but the city should be able to give you the lot plan along with any easement for free or minimal costs ($10 - $25 or so). They should also be able to tell you what you can or can't do on a drainage swale for the development for free or at least point out where in the zoning laws that information can be found.

Is your home in a new development? The drainage plan for the development would have needed to be submitted to the city to get permits to develop and they should be available. The developer also should have that information and be able to give it to you.

    Bookmark   August 19, 2010 at 11:07AM
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madtripper(5/6 Guelph)

Agree with last post. the city will provide zoning information for free.

I know someone who bought a house with exactly the same problem. the former owners had built a big deck over the swale. It was not great looking, but it did give them all the space back.

My friend then ripped it out and built up one side of the swale with armor stone. This left lots of room for water flow, and it made the yard that was left flatter.

I am going to guess you can't do much with the swale.

    Bookmark   August 19, 2010 at 8:35PM
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xrox, thanks to search engines I have just had an enjoyable visit to your country of Omar which is hiring LA's and architects from around the world to forward its vision of green architecture, eco-tourism, land planning and landscape protection. It sounds as though 20 houses in your neighborhood have fallen between the cracks of land planning.

Knowing that your part of world operates in a different way, I am curious as to why it would cost you $1500 to consult with the city on your situation and avail yourself of building codes, etc.? Standard procedure?

Also, I find it interesting that the LA's with whom you consulted did not appear to know the city codes (or lack of) and what you could or could not do.

It appears you are dealing with a frustrating, unsafe situation which really should be tackled by all the affected homeowners together in one plan, but that is probably a pipe dream.

Sorry, without a clearer understanding of the situation and why a tall retaining wall alone would not create a safe haven for the kids I have no corrective ideas. A few more details/pictures might be helpful.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2010 at 8:27AM
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I live in Oakville Canada :)

The cost comes from permit fees for site alterations. I only assume to get someone from the city to come and take a look would mean going through the entire permit process.

I just had a grading landscaper come by yesterday and he wants to get the builders engineer to take a look. He thinks that a 6" pipe (metal or PVC) with gravel fill and a armor stone retaining wall is the only option.

Putting the retaining wall too far from the back fence will leave a 4 foot drop where my little kids could fall into which is dangerous IMO.

Ideally I want the armor retaining wall as close to the fence as possible. The grading landscaper thinks 12-18" is code. He wants the engineer to confirm this.

My neighbor has the same problem but even worse as his lot has the drainage basin. He plans to put a deck over the basin and would like to put a retaining wall similar to mine to fill in the swale.

I will try and get pictures up today.

Thanks everyone.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2010 at 10:13AM
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Your local governing body is the one who put you in this situation by approving your builder's site and drainage plan, so they shouldn't push back when it comes to answering questions about how to then make it work. The city's engineers are on the road during the week anyhow, so you should be able to get them to meet you on site.

I have to be honest, I wouldn't change anything that's going on without an engineer and the city coming to a [documented] agreement of what will work. I may be picturing what's going on incorrectly, but from what I'm getting I'm dubious that a 6" pipe is going to be sufficient.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2010 at 11:16AM
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Okay, now that we have established your country follow marcind's thoughts above. Municipalities are very particular about storm water. Call the city building department office and request them to sent their civil engineer to view the site and answer your questions. Be certain to emphasize your safety concerns for children. There should not be a charge. Question...until you can resolve the problem would it make sense to enclose the ditch with inexpensive snow fence to keep the kiddies away from danger?

    Bookmark   August 20, 2010 at 12:18PM
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karinl(BC Z8)

Well, it is a tad misleading that your member page says you live in Oman. That ain't Oakville.

How long have you lived there - have you seen the weather conditions the swale is designed to handle? I agree with Marcinde that there is nothing about your description of the swale that says "6 inch pipe" to me. Especially the part that says "20 homes." What that says to me is "liability." I'm no lawyer, but if you alter the ditch and your neighbours up or downstream experience flooding, I'd imagine someone's butt is going to be in court.

I think you are wrong that getting the city to look would require you to go through the permit process. But even if you're right, you don't need to get them to look, just to talk, and probably to look on their computer to discuss options with you. It might even be in your home purchase documents what your legal obligations are. Your land title office may also be a source of information about easements, requirements, etc.

You can certainly post pictures and get online opinions, but anything we say is only an idea you'll still have to ask your city about if you are going to alter the swale at all.


    Bookmark   August 20, 2010 at 12:24PM
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LOL, I have no idea why it says Oman and has the wrong birthday?

Anyways, here is a photo of the swale. It is a good 4 feet deep at the far corner. Apparently according to the landscaper the code states that the grade must be 55% or less and he thinks we are exactly at 55% (maxed out).

The pictures don't give the proper depth perception but the slope into the swale is severe enough that kids can't really play in the back yard unless they are up near the house.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   August 20, 2010 at 3:49PM
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Is that photo taken from the back of the house or is it along the back fence?

As far as building the wall which would then have a drop between the wall and the fence (I think), couldn't a fence be incorporated into the top of the wall? It doesn't seem you'd ruin your view of your privacy fence and you could always plant in front of it. Alternatively, you could plant sturdy bushes along the top to keep the kids from the top of the wall.

    Bookmark   August 20, 2010 at 9:12PM
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The photo is taken along the back of the lot (drainage swale runs through back of lot against back fence). A secondary fence or shrubs has been considered.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2010 at 12:13AM
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Not that it makes you feel any better, but I've seen way worse. That said, I just feel like trying to take that water flow underground is asking for trouble. What's the dimension from the back of your house to the fence?

    Bookmark   August 21, 2010 at 10:14AM
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27feet from house to back fence. It is relatively flat for about 14 feet and then steep slope into swale (4-5 foot drop at the worst spot)

    Bookmark   August 21, 2010 at 11:08AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

Oakville Ontario or Oakville Manitoba? By the look of the picture, I'd guess Oakville Ontario in the newer areas north of the highway...? If so, don't mess with the drainage because there have been a few instances when short, heavy rains have overwhelmed the drainage system up there, causing flood damage, including sewer back-ups.

The picture is a bit confusing - is the water supposed to flow out of the yard by going under those fences? It sort of looks like the fence could dam up water on the property and not let it flow as it is supposed to...?

You should definitely talk to somebody official to assess the set-up in your yard. It should not cost you anything to talk to them - go through your Ward Councillor to find out who to talk to and help you through the process.

    Bookmark   August 21, 2010 at 3:17PM
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If there isn't a legal City Drainage Easement running along the back of the neighbors yards, you would be able to do as you please in your back yard. You and your neighbor's side-yard fence look as if they block the flow along the backyards if there was a drainage easement. Therefore the drainage would flow out underneath your back fence. Four questions:

1) Is there a physical gaps at the bottom of your side-yard fences for the swale storm flow?
2) What is the slope of the land beyond your back fence?
3) Is the area beyond your back fence another backyard? 4) How do their backyards drain?

A suggestion for the drop from the retaining wall would be to install a 4 foot high RI open picket fence(4" picket spacing) along the top of wall.


    Bookmark   August 22, 2010 at 12:09AM
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Here in the U.S. you actually don't have the right to alter existing drainage so that inhibits drainage off of abutters' properties or increases or diverts runoff onto abutters' property.

Here is something that I found for Ontario that might be pertinent:

Here is a link that might be useful: Ontario

    Bookmark   August 22, 2010 at 7:45AM
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The fence does not block flow of water. Our neighbor beside us has the easement and drain basin. He also wants to do something with his severe slope as well. There are gaps for water flow under the fence. Behind our back fence is another yard that drains two ways (1 into the swale in our yard and 2 into a neighbors yard adjacent to his.)All yards eventually drain into the swale and then into the basin.

I looked at our schedule B and we have 16 homes draining into the swale before our yard and a total of 18 homes into one catch basin. I've been told this is against code in itself as that is too many.

As far as calling someone to take a look for free I have absolutely no idea where to start.

Website is

BTW, I took a walk around the neighborhood and found a couple homes that have done exactly what I would like to do (armor stone retaining wall with underground drain pipe).

    Bookmark   August 22, 2010 at 10:31PM
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missingtheobvious(Blue Ridge 7a)

As far as calling someone to take a look for free I have absolutely no idea where to start.

Okay, you can't say that to a librarian and not get an answer. Maybe not what you were looking for, probably more than you wanted to know, but here you are:

I'm guessing that "Engineering and Construction" is the correct department. If so, you can email them here:

And here's the departmental directory:

Not an easy site to use. I clicked on the "Contact us" button, then on "click here to search by department, name, or position." Then chose what looked like the likely department from the drop-down menu and clicked "Search."

Of course, there's no one described there as "Receptionist" and no general departmental phone number listed on the site (that I can find). So I think the simplest thing to do might be to call City Hall (905-845-6601, listed on the original "Contact us" page) and ask for the Engineering and Construction Department. Then tell whoever answers what your situation is, and if it's the wrong department, they'll transfer you to the proper department.

Or even ask the City Hall telephone person which department they recommend for your situation. With that web site, I guarantee they get confused phone calls all the time. You might even suggest that they devote a web page to describing which department does what.

Then again, city bureaucracies being what they are, they may not want you to know.

[Your local phone book probably lists general phone numbers for the city departments. Or you could just go to City Hall yourself.]

    Bookmark   August 23, 2010 at 1:26AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I really encourage you to use your Ward Councillor to find the right person to talk to. I think it helps to have the elected official make the initial introduction... We had some similar questions about the viability of replacing a ditch with a culvert - there are several properties that have done that around here - illegally as it turned out... But in another area I've lived in, the Town eventually replaced an open ditch/water channel with buried large culvert pipes through multiple properties in the neighbourhood. If many of the homeowners along the drainage channel in your neighbourhood want a change, it's probably best that you approach the Town as a group rather than individually.

Here is a link that might be useful: Find your Ward

    Bookmark   August 23, 2010 at 10:10AM
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madtripper(5/6 Guelph)

I live in Guelph, Ontario - we are not that different.

1) Based on your slope (can be guaged by the lower 2x4 on the fence) your slope is mild compared to others I have seen around.
2) I would expect that you can't change the drainage - that is quite common here as a by law.
3) Call the city permit office. ask to speak to someone about the zoneing bylaws for drainage. If you go to the office you might even get better help. Take pictures with you along with your property plan. I have found the people in the zoneing office to be very helpfull. None of this advice will cost you anything. They will likely also give you copies of the zoneing bylaw so you can read it yourself.

4) Based on the picture you should be able to lengthen the flat area by adding the armor stone. but as you said that may not be safe for the kids. What you have now is a safe playing area, with a slope, which the kids will enjoy more than a flat area. maybe you are trying to solve a problem that is best left alone.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2010 at 9:01PM
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Talk to the neighbors who have changed their drainage pattern before going to the public officials. That info might be important in convincing the govt to go along with your wants. Do you have a community association governing your subdivision? Discussions with them is also helpful before talking to the public officials. They may have already laid the ground work in discussing this situation the govt or will help you do so. JMHO Aloha

    Bookmark   August 24, 2010 at 10:13PM
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Put a fence in front of it (3-4' aluminum) and plant shrubs in front of that, and the kids won't fall in unless they're really, really, REALLY trying.

Problem solved.

    Bookmark   August 24, 2010 at 11:09PM
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I think the fence sounds like an easy idea, at least for now. If shrubs are going to take up too much room, think about some non-poisonous vines are maybe some thornless roses. You could leave a gate on the less steep end, if you need to mow, etc.

As the kids get older, it will be a great place for them to go investigate. For now, they'll be safe on the flat area of the lawn and the vines or roses would give you a nice focal point. I don't know what zone you're in, but Therese Bugnet roses are hardy to zone 2 or 3 :)

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 12:37PM
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As I said before the photo does not show the proper depth so I have attached a drawing I made showing the cross section of the lot (see photo). The slope is already so severe that my kids have fallen down the slope into the swale (They are age 2 and 4).

Putting up a retaining wall "before" the swale would cut our yard to about 20 feet deep I think which is fairly small. We could then put a secondary fence up to prevent falling into the swale. I would much rather not shorten an already small backyard but if that is what I have to do to get some flat ground then so be it.

Any other suggestions?

Fairly poor lot planning by the builder/city IMO. It really stinks. It was our first home and we bought from plans and had no idea about lot grading.

Here is a link that might be useful:

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 3:43PM
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The swale must be installed for a reason. That much water will be an impressive flow to see, and I don't think you would want to be near it or in a deck over it, if you ever get that rare event it gets to capacity.

I would suggest leveling out any yard area outside of the easement and installing shrubs or a secondary fence to keep kids out of the swale.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 5:04PM
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Looking at the cross-section, the upper part of the slope doesn't seem very steep and probably will be fun to roll on. You could plant some hardy shrubs on the slope (say directly below the 7) which should protect your kids from the steepest part of the swale but still allow play on the safest part of the slope.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 5:09PM
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Isabella, This is not the case at all. The swale is only there because of poor planning. The houses behind ours are set too far below our grade so in order to have a swale to serverice both homes they had to severly slope our backyard to reach the swale. The only time I've ever seen flowing water in the swale was during a severe thunder storm and even then the water was minimal.

    Bookmark   August 25, 2010 at 5:13PM
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one thing about kids--they keep getting older, and the swale will be less dangerous.
meanwhile, why not deck it over with some fun stairs and ramps and make it into a kid clubhouse? sort of like a treehouse but without the tree. you could build or buy a playhouse or tiny cottage and really have fun with it.
i think you could disguise nicely it by making it into a really cool feature which hopefully the kids will love.

    Bookmark   August 26, 2010 at 10:21PM
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If the yards behind your house and fence a lower than yours and contain a continuation of the swale in their yard, I would make a plan for a retaining wall with a fence on top at your property line in back. If the City Engineering and Planning permit office approves it your good to go. You did not mention if you have a homeowner's association but you would go through them first and then to the permit office. If they approve you can build. You may be fretting over nothing unless you try and see what the association and permit office does. JMHO Aloha

    Bookmark   August 27, 2010 at 6:58PM
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Put up a retaining wall and fill in a lot of slope, plus double fence. If your kids are like mine, you'll want to plant it with something thorny.

Or do the retaining wall, fill in above, and add the deck, which could be a nice place for an above-ground sandbox, playhouse, etc.

    Bookmark   August 28, 2010 at 7:11PM
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I finally was able to contact the city and they have set up an inspection. They should be able to tell me what can and cannot be done.

I've kind of combined all the ideas I've recieved into one and I think this will work:

1 - armour stone retaining wall around yard.

2 - 6" culvurt pipe for stormwater drainage from surrounding swale

3 - weeping tile behind wall to enable drainage from neighbors yards

4 - weeping tile in front of wall to enable drainage from our yard

5 - crushed gravel fill with cloth on top

6 - soil and sod on top of cloth

Quotes for this have ranged between 5 to 8 thousand dollars.

    Bookmark   September 23, 2010 at 9:07AM
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peachymomo(Ca 8)

Please give an update after your inspection, I am interested to hear how you deal with this problem. I'd also love to see pictures of the final solution when it's done. :o)

    Bookmark   September 23, 2010 at 6:12PM
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Inspection completed. The inspector was extremely happy we called him. He said most would not have. He agreed our plan is fine as long as we stay a minimum distance from the lot line (12"), and follow the plan of using pipe and weeping tile for drainage.

I am amazed this was so easy. I would have never thought so.

Thanks for the help and advice everyone.

    Bookmark   September 30, 2010 at 7:48PM
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We are considering the purchase of a home with a similar situation. What was the end result xrox? Have there been any problems? What was the final bill?

Thanks for the post! It was very helpful.

    Bookmark   September 9, 2013 at 4:27PM
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