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Water: Best Management Practices

Infiltration Trench

Minimum Measure: Post-Construction Stormwater Management in New Development and Redevelopment

Subcategory: Infiltration

An infiltration trench (a.k.a. infiltration galley) is a rock-filled trench with no outlet that receives stormwater runoff. Stormwater runoff passes through some combination of pretreatment measures, such as a swale and detention basin, and into the trench. There, runoff is stored in the void space between the stones and infiltrates through the bottom and into the soil matrix. The primary pollutant removal mechanism of this practice is filtering through the soil.


Infiltration trenches have select applications. While they can be applied in most regions of the country, their use is sharply restricted by concerns due to common site factors, such as potential ground water contamination, soils, and clogging.

Regional Applicability

Infiltration trenches can be utilized in most regions of the country, with some design modifications in cold and arid climates. In regions of karst (i.e., limestone) topography, these stormwater management practices may not be applied due to concerns of sink hole formation and ground water contamination.

Ultra-Urban Areas

Ultra-urban areas are densely developed urban areas in which little pervious surface exists. Infiltration trenches can sometimes be applied in the ultra-urban environment. Two features that can restrict their use are the potential of infiltrated water to interfere with existing infrastructure, and the relatively poor infiltration capacity of most urban soils.

Stormwater Hot Spots

Stormwater hot spots are areas where land use or activities generate highly contaminated runoff, with concentrations of pollutants in excess of those typically found in stormwater. Infiltration trenches should not receive runoff from stormwater hot spots, unless the stormwater has already been treated by another stormwater management practice, because of potential ground water contamination.

Siting and Design Considerations

Infiltration trenches have select applications. Although they can be applied in a variety of situations, the use of infiltration trenches is restricted by concerns over ground water contamination, soils, and clogging.


Siting Considerations

Infiltration practices need to be sited extremely carefully. In particular, designers need to ensure that the soils on site are appropriate for infiltration and that designs minimize the potential for ground water contamination and long-term maintenance.

Drainage Area

Infiltration trenches generally can be applied to relatively small sites (less than 5 acres), with relatively high impervious cover. Application to larger sites generally causes clogging, resulting in a high maintenance burden.


Infiltration trenches should be placed on flat ground, but the slopes of the site draining to the practice can be as steep as 15 percent.


Soils and topography are strongly limiting factors when locating infiltration practices. Soils must be significantly permeable to ensure that the stormwater can infiltrate quickly enough to reduce the potential for clogging. In addition, soils that infiltrate too rapidly may not provide sufficient treatment, creating the potential for ground water contamination. The infiltration rate should range between 0.5 and 3 inches per hour. In addition, the soils should have no greater than 20 percent clay content, and less than 40 percent silt/clay content (MDE, 2000). The infiltration rate and textural class of the soil need to be confirmed in the field; designers should not rely on more generic information such as a soil survey. Finally, infiltration trenches may not be used in regions of karst topography, due to the potential for sinkhole formation or ground water contamination.

Ground Water

Designers always need to provide significant separation (2 to 5 feet) from the bottom of the infiltration trench and the seasonally high ground water table, to reduce the risk of contamination. In addition, infiltration practices should be separated from drinking water wells.

Design Considerations

Specific designs may vary considerably, depending on site constraints or preferences of the designer or community. There are some features, however, that should be incorporated into most infiltration trench designs. These design features can be divided into five basic categories: pretreatment, treatment, conveyance, maintenance reduction, and landscaping.


Pretreatment refers to design features that provide settling of large particles before runoff reaches a management practice, easing the long-term maintenance burden. Pretreatment is important for all structural stormwater management practices, but it is particularly important for infiltration practices. To ensure that pretreatment mechanisms are effective, designers should incorporate "multiple pretreatment," using practices such as grassed swales, vegetated filter strips, detention, or a plunge pool in series.


Treatment design features enhance the pollutant removal of a practice. During the construction process, the upland soils of infiltration trenches need to be stabilized to ensure that the trench does not become clogged with sediment. Furthermore, the practice should be filled with large clean stones that can retain the volume of water to be treated in their voids. Like infiltration basins, this practice should be sized so that the volume to be treated can infiltrate out of the trench bottom in 24 hours.


Stormwater needs to be conveyed through stormwater management practices safely, and in a way that minimizes erosion. Designers need to be particularly careful in ensuring that channels leading to an infiltration practice are designed to minimize erosion. Infiltration trenches should be designed to treat only small storms, (i.e., only for water quality). Thus, these practices should be designed "off-line," using a structure to divert only small flows to the practice. Finally, the sides of an infiltration trench should be lined with a geotextile fabric to prevent flow from causing rills along the edge of the practice.

Maintenance Reduction

In addition to regular maintenance activities, designers also need to incorporate features into the design to ensure that the maintenance burden of a practice is reduced. These features can make regular maintenance activities easier or reduce the need to perform maintenance. As with all management practices, infiltration trenches should have an access path for maintenance activities. An observation well (i.e., a perforated PVC pipe that leads to the bottom of the trench) can enable inspectors to monitor the drawdown rate. Where possible, trenches should have a means to drain the practice if it becomes clogged, such as an underdrain. An underdrain is a perforated pipe system in a gravel bed, installed on the bottom of filtering practices to collect and remove filtered runoff. An underdrain pipe with a shutoff valve can be used in an infiltration system to act as an overflow in case of clogging.


In infiltration trenches, there is no landscaping on the practice itself, but it is important to ensure that the upland drainage is properly stabilized with thick vegetation, particularly following construction.

Regional Variations

Arid or Semi-Arid Climates

In arid regions, infiltration practices are often highly recommended because of the need to recharge the ground water. One concern in these regions is the potential of these practices to clog, due to relatively high sediment concentrations in these environments. Pretreatment needs to be more heavily emphasized in these dryer climates.

Cold Climates

In extremely cold climates (i.e., regions that experience permafrost), infiltration trenches may be an infeasible option. In most cold climates, infiltration trenches can be a feasible management practice, but there are some challenges to their use. The volume may need to be increased in order to treat snowmelt. In addition, if the practice is used to treat roadside runoff, it may be desirable to divert flow around the trench in the winter to prevent infiltration of chlorides from road salting, where this is a problem. Finally, a minimum setback from roads is needed to ensure that the practice does not cause frost heaving.


Although infiltration trenches can be a useful management practice, they have several limitations. While they do not detract visually from a site, infiltration trenches provide no visual enhancements. Their application is limited due to concerns over ground water contamination and other soils requirements. Finally, maintenance can be burdensome, and infiltration practices have a relatively high rate of failure.

Maintenance Considerations

In addition to incorporating features into the design to minimize maintenance, some regular maintenance and inspection practices are needed. Table 1 outlines some of these practices.

Table 1. Typical maintenance activities for infiltration trenches (Source: Modified from WMI, 1997)



  • Check observation wells following 3 days of dry weather. Failure to percolate within this time period indicates clogging.
  • Inspect pretreatment devices and diversion structures for sediment build-up and structural damage.

Semi-annual inspection

  • Remove sediment and oil/grease from pretreatment devices and overflow structures.

Standard maintenance

  • If bypass capability is available, it may be possible to regain the infiltration rate in the short term by using measures such as providing an extended dry period.

5-year maintenance

  • Total rehabilitation of the trench should be conducted to maintain storage capacity within 2/3 of the design treatment volume and 72-hour exfiltration rate limit.
  • Trench walls should be excavated to expose clean soil.

Upon failure

Infiltration practices have historically had a high rate of failure compared to other stormwater management practices. One study conducted in Prince George's County, Maryland (Galli, 1992), revealed that less than half of the infiltration trenches investigated (of about 50) were still functioning properly, and less than one-third still functioned properly after 5 years. Many of these practices, however, did not incorporate advanced pretreatment. By carefully selecting the location and improving the design features of infiltration practices, their performance should improve.


Structural stormwater management practices can be used to achieve four broad resource protection goals. These include flood control, channel protection, ground water recharge, and pollutant removal. Infiltration trenches can provide ground water recharge, pollutant control, and can help somewhat to provide channel protection.

Ground Water Recharge

Infiltration trenches recharge the ground water because runoff is treated for water quality by filtering through the soil and discharging to ground water.

Pollutant Removal

Very little data are available regarding the pollutant removal associated with infiltration trenches. It is generally assumed that they have very high pollutant removal, because none of the stormwater entering the practice remains on the surface. Schueler (1987) estimated pollutant removal for infiltration trenches based on data from land disposal of wastewater. The average pollutant removal, assuming the infiltration trench is sized to treat the runoff from a 1-inch storm, is:

TSS 75%

Phosphorous 60-70%

Nitrogen 55-60%

Metals 85-90%

Bacteria 90%

These removal efficiencies assume that the infiltration trench is well designed and maintained. The information in the Siting and Design Considerations and Maintenance Considerations sections represent the best available information on how to properly design these practices. The design references below provide additional information.

Cost Considerations

Infiltration trenches are somewhat expensive, when compared to other stormwater practices, in terms of cost per area treated. Typical construction costs, including contingency and design costs, are about $5 per ft3 of stormwater treated (SWRPC, 1991; Brown and Schueler, 1997).

Infiltration trenches typically consume about 2 to 3 percent of the site draining to them, which is relatively small. In addition, infiltration trenches can fit into thin, linear areas. Thus, they can generally fit into relatively unusable portions of a site.

One cost concern associated with infiltration practices is the maintenance burden and longevity. If improperly maintained, infiltration trenches have a high failure rate (see Maintenance Considerations). In general, maintenance costs for infiltration trenches are estimated at between 5 percent and 20 percent of the construction cost. More realistic values are probably closer to the 20 percent range, to ensure long-term functionality of the practice.


Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). 2000. Maryland Stormwater Design Manual. [http://www.mde.state.md.us/environment/wma/stormwatermanual Exit EPA Site]. Accessed November 10, 2005.

Watershed Management Institute (WMI). 1997. Operation, Maintenance, and Management of Stormwater Management Systems. Prepared for U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Washington, DC.

Brown, W., and T. Schueler. 1997. The Economics of Stormwater BMPs in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Prepared for the Chesapeake Research Consortium, Edgewater, MD, by the Center for Watershed Protection, Ellicott City, MD.

Galli, J. 1992. Analysis of Urban BMP Performance and Longevity in Prince George's County, Maryland. Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Washington, DC.

Schueler, T. 1987. Controlling Urban Runoff: A Practical Manual for Planning and Designing Urban BMPs. Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, Washington, DC.

Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SWRPC). 1991. Costs of Urban Nonpoint Source Water Pollution Control Measures. Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, Waukesha, WI.

Information Resources

Center for Watershed Protection (CWP). 1997. Stormwater BMP Design Supplement for Cold Climates. Prepared for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, Washington, DC, by the Center for Watershed Protection, Ellicott City, MD. 

Ferguson, B.K. 1994. Stormwater Infiltration. CRC Press, Ann Arbor, MI.

Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. 1989. Protecting Water Quality in Urban Areas: Best Management Practices. Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, Minneapolis, MN.

USEPA. 1993. Guidance to Specify Management Measures for Sources of Nonpoint Pollution in Coastal Waters. EPA-840-B-92-002. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Water, Washington, DC.

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