The Golden Rule of Storm Water

In previous blogs I’ve suggested a proactive approach to storm water management around your property. I’ve given suggestions on keeping storm water away from your basements, buildings and livestock areas. I’ve also offered remedies for the places where heavy rains can make life difficult regardless of our efforts at diversion: driveways, feedlots, etc. (Geotextile fabric under your stone is often a great option in these situations, and we just so happen to sell it “at cost” right here at the HSWCD office.) What I haven’t yet touched upon is something I like to call “The Golden Rule of Storm Water.”

It seems entirely logical to recognize the fact that water flows downhill. Furthermore, the Law of Gravity dictates that any rain that falls anywhere within a given watershed will invariably make its way to the bottom of that watershed. Many, many factors affect the flow of water along the way. Different soil conditions, ground cover, crops and developed land uses yield different volumes and velocities of water moving toward the outlet end of the funnel. When something changes within a watershed other things are affected—in particular those things which happen to be downstream. Among the most dramatic changes affecting watersheds are the construction of buildings and parking lots. Impervious surfaces like roofs and pavements not only deny the opportunity for rainwater to be absorbed, they increase the volume and velocity of water flowing through natural water courses and swales headed downhill. If you’re building a place at the top of the hill, storm water may seem of little concern so long as it stays away from your own cellar. But if you’re living at the bottom of the hill, and the forest above you has begun to sprout houses, barns, driveways and parking lots, chances are that you’ll notice a change from where you sit. A canopy of leaves—which buffer the impact of the falling rain drops—and a forest floor covered with thick humus over a thriving web of thirsty roots can handle rainfall better than any creation of man. Conversely, nothing sends rainfall on its way faster than a roof surrounded by a parking lot. 

If you are building at the top, or even “up watershed,” of folks down below, you’ll always do best to follow this fundamental philosophy: Drain unto others as you would have them drain unto you—The Golden Rule of Storm Water. 

A great deal of case law exists suggesting that the best way to handle drainage issues is with that very thought in mind. Yes, water flows downhill but it should do so in essentially the same general manner and at roughly the same rate after development as it did before. If increased run-off from your land use activity damages your neighbor’s property you may very well end up being the one who gets soaked.

The following is a handout available at our office. It’s a great guideline for keeping you and your neighbor on speaking terms once the rain starts to fall. And while not an out and out run-down of the law, it’s a good way to get a feel for what’s right and wrong when it comes to storm water issues.  If you have any questions, be sure to give us a call at HSWCD 330-674-2811.

Ohio Drainage Laws

The Ohio Drainage Laws are complex since they are evolved by case law, which is always changing, and are not easily summarized. Below is an attempt at a brief overview of landowner drainage rights. There are presently no clear answers to many of the drainage problems encountered throughout the year. The best solution is to work with adjacent landowners to voluntarily correct drainage issues. Serious disputes between landowners are most often settled in court on a case-by-case basis.

Most people who work in the area of drainage or water management would agree that the following principles apply to landowners:

  • A landowner is entitled to the reasonable use of the water that flows across his/her land, as long as the water is returned to its natural water course. This includes ponding water behind a dam for personal use or making drainage improvements to protect structures.
  • A landowner is general required to accept the water that flows onto his/her property in a natural watercourse, so long as no additional water from another watershed has been added to such flow.
  • A landowner is generally obligated to outlet a natural water course onto their downstream neighbor at the same point the water left the property prior to any development of the site and at the same rate of flow prior to any development.
  • More simply, water should enter and leave your property where it did prior to any construction activities and at the same rate as before any improvement activities. Changing the flow of water in a manner that causes damage to an upstream or downstream neighbor may result in legal liabilities for these damages.
  • Holmes SWCD does not have the authority to issue orders or otherwise resolve conflicts over water rights or drainage problems between neighbors. Holmes SWCD can provide assistance to landowners who voluntarily wish to improve drainage on their own property.
  • New construction that disturbs more than one acre must have an Ohio Environmental Protection Agency National Pollutant Discharge Elimination Storm Water Permit (Ohio EPA—330-963-1117), which requires basic storm water and erosion control practices be used during construction. Agriculture is generally exempt.

This publication is intended to help the reader better understand how water rights problems related to drainage are addressed in Ohio. Its intent is not to provide legal interpretation. The help of a qualified attorney may be necessary for one to fully understand how these laws may apply to individual situations. The Ohio State University Extension has a bulletin titled Ohio’s Drainage Laws—An Overview (Bulletin #822) that can be found on-line at http://ohioline.osu.edu/b822index.html or by calling the local Extension office (330-674-3015).


John Lorson came to Holmes SWCD after having left a career in higher education quite literally for greener pastures. He holds a BS in Biology from The University of Akron where he later worked for ten years, most recently as coordinator of the Wayne College Holmes campus. John also spent 15 years as an engineering technician with the city of Orrville and still serves in his hometown as a city council representative. Local residents may recognize John from his weekly humor column in The Daily Record and Shopper News—a collaboration with his wife, Kristin that is now in its 20th year. He is thrilled to be working as a technician in the field of conservation—a great crossroad of his education and experience. Reach John with your conservation concerns at 330-674-2811 or email jlorson@co.holmes.oh.us