Development in Sydney is booming and has been for a while. Civil and environmental engineers typically have the opportunity to see a large number of designs and proposed solutions when it comes to treating stormwater runoff on residential and industrial subdivisions.

Currently, all subdivisions in the north and south-western growth centres require some form of temporary water quality treatment. These systems are to be in place until council are able to construct the planned regional stormwater management infrastructure.  At this point, the temporary measures can be removed and those additional lots released.

To meet these requirements, engineers often opt for a detention basin combined with a bioretention zone at the base. These basins take up at least one lot on smaller developments (depending on how thorough you are in your design method) and 10 or more lots on larger developments. This has the effect of lowering a development’s return and increasing costs in the process.

Bioretention basins are designed to capture stormwater runoff and treat water through a depressed landscaped area with an engineered filter media. Stormwater filters through this engineered media and is allowed to permeate through the ground where existing soils have a high enough permeability and a low groundwater table. However, in north-western Sydney, it is mandated that an impervious liner is placed at the base and slotted sub-soil drainage lines take the treated stormwater away.

Figure 1 A typical section through a bioretention system

These systems are designed to mimic the pollutant removal mechanisms that operate in natural ecosystems.

While this sounds simple enough in principle, in practice, you get convoluted designs, patchwork solutions, and oftentimes, non-existent maintenance regimes. I’ve come across everything from a simple letter report explaining why temporarily treating stormwater runoff is not required for a certain development to full-fledged, bioretention basins with all the bells and whistles that you would expect to see on a permanent system.

A stamped set of recent DA plans included a bioretention basin with a surcharge pit as the outlet and no low level outlet to drain the filtered stormwater, unintentionally creating a pond for future houses that will back onto the basin.

Another design went through so many changes and iterations as the development progressed through council reviews and approvals, that the constructed basin will have no use whatsoever as stormwater would never enter it.

Now you may say this is an issue with the designers and contractors implementing these systems. Or maybe it’s the fact that councils themselves don’t know what is required or what constitutes a logical solution. Your design could be perfect, yet each time it goes to the certifying authority, it’s a 50/50 call whether or not it gets approved.

While you might expect the odd detail to slip through the cracks here and there, it shouldn’t be the case that two very similar developments can be approved with huge differences in proposed temporary infrastructure.

So, what’s the solution to this mess? I believe temporary water quality treatment measures are a waste of time, money and resources. Often, they wind up creating more problems to downstream watercourses through increased sediment loads in their first year of operation.

Don’t get me wrong, I think bioretention systems are wonderful and I am a huge proponent of them being integrated as part of a whole of water-cycle management approach. They not only have an environmental benefit, but also provide public amenity and can be attractive focal points of a community. However, this takes a willing developer and invested public servants.

Figure 3 Rain garden under construction (Image credit: Mithun)

If funding was made available to councils and they were able to build the infrastructure that was planned before houses started to be erected, we wouldn’t be in this mess. But what can we do about it now?

Stringent policing and fines for the implementation of erosion and sediment control measures during construction along with a policy to retain stormwater and reduce potable water consumption would be a much more effective strategy.

So next time you’re part of team tasked in developing a broad-scale stormwater management strategy, don’t go for the end of line solution. Integrate stormwater management as part of each public street and each development wherever possible.


  • Thanks for this interesting analysis Leonid. My research theses back in the 1990's was based on water efficiency within the built environment. My hypothesis was that best outcomes would be acheived when systems (rather than system users) were designed to function using low flow and re-use technologies. In other words a non-cognitive systems based solution would be superior to reliance on the then approach of funding a 'WaterWise' awareness program which relied on human response to not waste water.
    In respect of the issue of stormwater management and usage how do you view the matter of likely increase intensity and cumulative rainfall patterns due to climate change that may occur along our heavily populated eastern seaboard? Designs based on 1 in 20 and even 1 in 100 year events may be redundant from the outset.