Dirtwork: Not-So-Dry Stream Drainage

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

Last Tuesday afternoon, thunder rumbled ominously, cold gusts whipped up dust-dry soil, and the light went all storm-gray. I stood on the front deck watching streamers of rain approach and debated about whether or not to set out on my usual walk to the Post Office.

A hailstone about the size of a mothball that broke on impact. A hailstone that broke on impact.

Until I felt the first cold drop. It was hard. It bounced, white and rounded.

What? Then I heard the clatter: hail.

I ducked back inside. The cloud opened up and all hail broke loose. (Sorry, I couldn't resist the pun!) Over the next 25 minutes, more precipitation poured from the sky than we had received in the last two months--six-tenths of an inch.

Rain on my metal roof makes an audible drumming I enjoy. Hail produces an alarming cacophony of clanging, clattering, and crashing.

Rain barrel overflows at the height of the storm. Rain barrel overflows at the height of the storm.

I dashed out at the height of the storm to open the drain on my overflowing rain barrel and to check on the studio and garage. All was well.

Except for the dry stream drainage I designed to carry runoff from just this sort of downpour down the slope between the two buildings without eroding or flooding the creek with sediment.

The side of the dry stream that drains Creek House was working just as planned. The "tributary" that drained the runoff from Treehouse's shed roof overflowed and cut a new channel down one side of the steps.

My "dry" stream drainage in a moment of not-so-dry. My "dry" stream drainage in a moment of not-so-dry hail.

Not good.

So yesterday morning, I did a little fluvial engineering, otherwise known as dirtwork. I started by digging a small retention basin where the roof drainage from Treehouse overflowed.

Retention basin beyond the downspout, the beginning of the tributary channel in front. Retention basin beyond the downspout, the beginning of the tributary channel in front.

That was the easy part—I was digging in relatively loose construction road base, not the compacted layers of post-industrial-dump over river cobbles that make up the natural "soil."

From that small retention basin—which I will line with river rock—I used my trusty mattock to hack a channel aiming downhill to the existing dry stream drainage, cutting deep to keep it from overflowing again.

The tributary crossing the middle of the photo, aiming for the main stem of the drainage in the background. The black grating is the ramp coming off the Creek House deck, allowing wheeled access from the house to the garage. The tributary crossing the middle of the photo toward the main stem of the drainage in the background. The black grating is the end of the ramp coming off the Creek House deck.

And I do mean hack. I chipped my way through layers of cemented fly ash, fused glass and coal-dust, and pried out cobbles as big as one twice the size of my head that weighed 50 pounds. (Good thing Richard taught me about fulcrums and levers.)

The steps, slope, and main dry creek channel; the new tributary comes in from the left of the wheelchair ramp. The steps, slope, and main creek channel; the new tributary comes in from the left of the wheelchair ramp. (Yet to come are a flagstone patio on the left side of the photo and more high-desert plants.)

It took me three sweaty hours to connect the new tributary to the main stem of the dry stream, stopping now and again to guzzle water and rest.

When I finished, I cleaned off my tools, tested the new channel by running water down it, and shot a few photos.

The drainage from the second-story deck of Treehouse The drainage from the second-story deck of Treehouse

And then I went inside to soak my aching muscles in a hot bath. As I soaked, I thought about how good it feels to be able to design a solution to my drainage problem, and build it myself. Despite working right to the edge of exhaustion doing it.

Richard was so much larger and stronger than me (6 feet tall and 180 pounds of nicely toned muscle to my 5-foot-six and 115 pounds of skinny) it was natural for him to do all of the heavy work. That never bothered me.

Now that it's just me, solo, it's surprisingly satisfying to discover all I can do.

I'd rather have my love back beside me. Since that's not an option (dammit), I'm having fun exploring my inner dirt-worker. Seeing muscles appear on my middle-aged frame is pretty cool too.

Yeah, I'm solo and I'm strong! Yeah, I'm solo and I'm strong!