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Water: Best Management Practices

Vegetated Filter Strip

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

Subcategory: Filtration


Vegetated filter strips (grassed filter strips, filter strips, and grassed filters) are vegetated surfaces that are designed to treat sheet flow from adjacent surfaces. Filter strips function by slowing runoff velocities and filtering out sediment and other pollutants, and by providing some infiltration into underlying soils. Filter strips were originally used as an agricultural treatment practice, and have more recently evolved into an urban practice. With proper design and maintenance, filter strips can provide relatively high pollutant removal. One challenge associated with filter strips, however, is that it is difficult to maintain sheet flow, so the practice may be "short circuited" by concentrated flows, receiving little or no treatment.


Filter strips are applicable in most regions, but are restricted in some situations because they consume a large amount of space relative to other practices. Filter strips are best suited to treating runoff from roads and highways, roof downspouts, very small parking lots, and pervious surfaces. They are also ideal components of the "outer zone" of a stream buffer (see Riparian/Forested Buffer fact sheet), or as pretreatment to a structural practice. This recommendation is consistent with recommendations in the agricultural setting that filter strips are most effective when combined with another practice (Magette et al., 1989). In fact, the most recent stormwater manual for Maryland does not consider the filter strip as a treatment practice, but does offer stormwater volume reductions in exchange for using filter strips to treat some of a site.

Regional Applicability

Filter strips can be applied in most regions of the country. In arid areas, however, the cost of irrigating the grass on the practice will most likely outweigh its water quality benefits.

Ultra-Urban Areas

Ultra-urban areas are densely developed urban areas in which little pervious surface exists. Filter strips are impractical in ultra-urban areas because they consume a large amount of space.

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. A typical example is a gas station. Filter strips should not receive hot spot runoff, because the practice encourages infiltration. In addition, it is questionable whether this practice can reliably remove pollutants, so it should definitely not be used as the sole treatment of hot spot runoff.

Stormwater Retrofit

A stormwater retrofit is a stormwater management practice (usually structural), put into place after development has occurred, to improve water quality, protect downstream channels, reduce flooding, or meet other specific objectives. Filter strips are generally a poor retrofit option because they consume a relatively large amount of space and cannot treat large drainage areas.

Cold Water (Trout) Streams

Some cold water species, such as trout, are sensitive to changes in temperature. While some treatment practices, such as wet ponds (see Wet Ponds fact sheet), can warm stormwater substantially, filter strips do not warm pond water on the surface for long periods of time and are not expected to increase stormwater temperatures. Thus, these practices are good for protection of cold-water streams.

Siting and Design Considerations

Siting Considerations

In addition to the restrictions and modifications to adapting filter strips to different regions and land uses, designers need to ensure that this management practice is feasible at the site in question. The following section provides basic guidelines for siting filter strips.

Drainage Area

Typically, filter strips are used to treat very small drainage areas. The limiting design factor, however, is not the drainage area the practice treats but the length of flow leading to it. As stormwater runoff flows over the ground's surface, it changes from sheet flow to concentrated flow. Rather than moving uniformly over the surface, the concentrated flow forms rivulets which are slightly deeper and cover less area than the sheet flow. When flow concentrates, it moves too rapidly to be effectively treated by a grassed filter strip. Furthermore, this concentrated flow can lead to scouring.  As a rule, flow concentrates within a maximum of 75 feet for impervious surfaces, and 150 feet for pervious surfaces (CWP, 1996). Using this rule, a filter strip can treat one acre of impervious surface per 580-foot length.


Filter strips should be designed on slopes between 2 and 6 percent. Greater slopes than this would encourage the formation of concentrated flow. Except in the case of very sandy or gravelly soil, runoff would pond on the surface on slopes flatter than 2 percent, creating potential mosquito breeding habitat.

Soils /Topography

Filter strips should not be used on soils with a high clay content, because they require some infiltration for proper treatment. Very poor soils that cannot sustain a grass cover crop are also a limiting factor.

Ground Water

Filter strips should be separated from the ground water by between 2 and 4 ft to prevent contamination and to ensure that the filter strip does not remain wet between storms.

Design Considerations

Filter strips appear to be a minimal design practice because they are basically no more than a grassed slope. However, some design features are critical to ensure that the filter strip provides some minimum amount of water quality treatment.

  • A pea gravel diaphragm should be used at the top of the slope. The pea gravel diaphragm (a small trench running along the top of the filter strip) serves two purposes. First, it acts as a pretreatment device, settling out sediment particles before they reach the practice. Second, it acts as a level spreader, maintaining sheet flow as runoff flows over the filter strip.
  • The filter strip should be designed with a pervious berm of sand and gravel at the toe of the slope. This feature provides an area for shallow ponding at the bottom of the filter strip. Runoff ponds behind the berm and gradually flows through outlet pipes in the berm. The volume ponded behind the berm should be equal to the water quality volume. The water quality volume is the amount of runoff that will be treated for pollutant removal in the practice. Typical water quality volumes are the runoff from a 1-inch storm or ½-inch of runoff over the entire drainage area to the practice.
  • The filter strip should be at least 25 feet long to provide water quality treatment.
  • Designers should choose a grass that can withstand relatively high velocity flows and both wet and dry periods.
  • Both the top and toe of the slope should be as flat as possible to encourage sheet flow and prevent erosion.

Regional Variations

In cold climates, filter strips provide a convenient area for snow storage and treatment. If used for this purpose, vegetation in the filter strip should be salt-tolerant, (e.g., creeping bentgrass), and a maintenance schedule should include the removal of sand built up at the bottom of the slope. In arid or semi-arid climates, designers should specify drought-tolerant grasses (e.g., buffalo grass) to minimize irrigation requirements.


Filter strips have several limitations related to their performance and space consumption:

  • The practice has not been shown to achieve high pollutant removal.
  • Filter strips require a large amount of space, typically equal to the impervious area they treat, making them often infeasible in urban environments where land prices are high.
  • If improperly designed, filter strips can allow mosquitos to breed.
  • Proper design requires a great deal of finesse, and slight problems in the design, such as improper grading, can render the practice ineffective in terms of pollutant removal.
Maintenance Considerations

Filter strips require similar maintenance to other vegetative practices (see Grassed Swales fact sheet). These maintenance needs are outlined below. Maintenance is very important for filter strips, particularly in terms of ensuring that flow does not short circuit the practice.

Table 1. Typical maintenance activities for vegetated filter strips (Source: CWP, 1996)



  • Inspect pea gravel diaphragm for clogging and remove built-up sediment.
  • Inspect vegetation for rills and gullies and correct. Seed or sod bare areas.
  • Inspect to ensure that grass has established. If not, replace with an alternative species.

Annual inspection (semi-annual the first year)

  • Remove sediment build-up within the bottom when it has accumulated to 25% of the original capacity.

Regular (infrequent)


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. The first two goals, flood control and channel protection, require that a stormwater practice be able to reduce the peak flows of relatively large storm events (at least 1- to 2-year storms for channel protection and at least 10- to 50-year storms for flood control). Filter strips do not have the capacity to detain these events, but can be designed with a bypass system that routes these flows around the practice entirely.

Filter strips can provide a small amount of ground water recharge as runoff flows over the vegetated surface and ponds at the toe of the slope. In addition, it is believed that filter strips can provide modest pollutant removal. Studies from agricultural settings suggest that a 15-foot-wide grass buffer can achieve a 50 percent removal rate of nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment, and that a 100-foot buffer can reach closer to 70 percent removal of these constituents (Desbonette et al., 1994). It is unclear how these results can be translated to the urban environment, however. The characteristics of the incoming flows are radically different both in terms of pollutant concentration and the peak flows associated with similar storm events. To date, only one study (Yu et al., 1992) has investigated the effectiveness of a grassed filter strip to treat runoff from a large parking lot. The study found that the pollutant removal varied depending on the length of flow in the filter strip. The narrower (75-foot) filter strip had moderate removal for some pollutants and actually appeared to export lead, phosphorus, and nutrients (See Table 2).

Table 2. Pollutant removal of an urban vegetated filter strip (Source: Yu et al., 1993)

Pollutant Removal (%)

75-Ft Filter Strip

150-Ft Filter Strip

Total suspended solids






Total phosphorus



Extractable lead



Extractable zinc



Cost Considerations

Little data are available on the actual construction costs of filter strips. One rough estimate can be the cost of seed or sod, which is approximately 30¢ per ft2 for seed or 70¢ per ft2 for sod. This amounts to between $13,000 and $30,000 per acre for a filter strip, or the same amount per impervious acre treated. This cost is relatively high compared with other treatment practices. However, the grassed area used as a filter strip may have been seeded or sodded even if it were not used for treatment. In these cases, the only additional costs are the design, which is minimal, and the installation of a berm and gravel diaphragm. Typical maintenance costs are about $350/acre/year (adapted from SWRPC, 1991). This cost is relatively inexpensive and, again, might overlap with regular landscape maintenance costs.

The true cost of filter strips is the land they consume, which is higher than for any other treatment practice. In some situations this land is available as wasted space beyond back yards or adjacent to roadsides, but this practice is cost-prohibitive when land prices are high and land could be used for other purposes.


Design Reference

Center for Watershed Protection (CWP).  1996.  Design of Stormwater Filtering Systems.  Prepared for Chesapeake Research Consortium, Solomons, MD, and EPA Region V, Chicago, IL.

Other References

Desbonette, A., P. Pogue, V. Lee, and N. Wolff. 1994. Vegetated Buffers in the Coastal Zone: A Summary Review and Bibliography. Coastal Resources Center. University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI.

Magette, W., R. Brinsfield, R. Palmer and J. Wood. 1989. Nutrient and Sediment Removal by Vegetated Filter Strips. Transactions of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers 32(2): 663-667.

Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission (SWRPC). 1991.  Costs of Urban Nonpoint Source Water Pollution Control Measures.  Technical report no. 31. Southeastern Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission, Waukesha, WI.

Yu, S., S. Barnes and V. Gerde. 1993. Testing of Best Management Practices for Controlling Highway Runoff. FHWA/VA 93-R16. Virginia Transportation Research Council, Charlottesville, VA.

Information Resources

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

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.

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