Water Bars Help Direct and Stem Stormwater Runoff

In the ongoing effort to stem the tide of stormwater runoff in the Coral Bay watershed, one neighborhood is having success with a relatively inexpensive dirt road fix.
In June 2009 residents in the Mill Vista neighborhood in the Estate Lower Carolina area of Coral Bay, installed several water bars on their dirt road and have seen a dramatic improvement.

Water bars are basically telephone poles set in the ground in strategic locations which direct the flow of water to a swale along the roadway instead of running down and washing out the road itself.


Mill Vista neighbors learned of the technique and got advice on the best placement of the water bars thanks to the Coral Bay Community Council’s former storm water engineer.


Armed with a $300,000, three-year Community Action for a Renewed Environment (CARE) grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, CBCC hired hydrologist Joe Mina, who shared expert advice with residents looking to reduce runoff in their neighborhoods.

Mina, who spent about six months on the job in St. John before having to return stateside for personal reasons, met with Mill Vista residents in June 2009 and discussed the best placement of water bars for their road, explained homeowner Toni Lacer.

“Joe came up and met with us and told us where we should put the water bars because they must be spaced properly in order to work,” Lacer said.

The price tag for installing four water bars in a dirt road is much less than the cost would be to pave the road, making the technique ideal for many neighborhoods.

“We did it all in one day — it probably took six hours,” said Lacer. “We had someone dig holes with a backhoe and then we put in the telephone poles. It probably cost around $1,000.”

A water bar’s most obvious drawback is the bump created from the pole. In order to direct the flow of water, the bars are not embedded entirely in the roadway, but protrude several inches. While there are essentially several bumps in the Mill Vista road now, the runoff has improved greatly, explained Lacer.

“We used to have the road graded, but with heavy rains, it would just get washed out again,” Lacer said. “This seems to have slowed down the flow of water dramatically.”
Fellow Mill Vistas homeowner Hilarie Oliver agreed.

“I’ve definitely noticed a difference,” said Oliver. “The water bars are a fairly inexpensive solution that helps to maintain the integrity of the road by diverting water to where it should be — on the side of the road.”

In addition to directing the flow of water, planting vegetation is another way to combat runoff, explained CBCC president Sharon Coldren.

“The other thing that goes along with this is lots of vegetation in the swales,” said Coldren. “There are three things to remember — vegetate, vegetate, vegetate. Vegetation will help to keep the sediment in the swales from eroding and if it’s a light rain, will just absorb the water.”

“Everywhere that you see bare earth on the road, you have the potential for erosion,” Coldren said. “It takes a lot of work to get the plants going, but once you get them established it makes a big difference.”

An example of the positive impacts of vegetation can be seen in Estate Upper Carolina in Coral Bay, where residents have been planting seedlings for years, according to the CBCC president.

“The Upper Carolina Home Owners Association made a real effort after Hurricane George in the late 1990s, to vegetate and to eliminate the potential for landslides,”  Coldren said. “They already had paved roads, but the vegetation still helped as far as stabilizing sediment. That is a really good example of what vegetation can do to help reduce runoff.”

The Mill Vista water bars are truly the EPA grant at work, explained Coldren.

“This is the EPA CARE grant at work and shows you that a simple hour’s advice can make a big difference,” she said. “The homeowners themselves did a lot of the work too. Not everything gets done in one day, but they’ve done their part and they continue to do their part.”

“These homeowners are taking responsibility for their runoff,” Coldren said. “Joe had other suggestions too, which will be implemented but this is something that he advised and six months later we can all see the difference it made.”