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Bioretention (Rain Gardens)

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

Subcategory: Filtration

Photo Description:  Bioretention areas can be used in parking areas to collect and treat stormwater


Bioretention areas, or rain gardens, are landscaping features adapted to provide on-site treatment of stormwater runoff. They are commonly located in parking lot islands or within small pockets of residential land uses. Surface runoff is directed into shallow, landscaped depressions. These depressions are designed to incorporate many of the pollutant removal mechanisms that operate in forested ecosystems. During storms, runoff ponds above the mulch and soil in the system. Runoff from larger storms is generally diverted past the facility to the storm drain system. The remaining runoff filters through the mulch and prepared soil mix. The filtered runoff can be collected in a perforated underdrain and returned to the storm drain system.


Bioretention systems are generally applied to small sites and in a highly urbanized setting. Bioretention can be applied in many climatological and geologic situations, with some minor design modifications.

Regional Applicability

Bioretention systems are applicable almost everywhere in the United States. In arid or cold climates, however, some minor design modifications may be needed.

Bioretention area in a residential subdivision

Ultra-Urban Areas

Ultra-urban areas are densely developed urban areas in which little pervious surface exists. Bioretention facilities are ideally suited to many ultra-urban areas, such as parking lots. While they consume a fairly large amount of space (approximately 5 percent of the area that drains to them), they can be fit into existing parking lot islands or other landscaped areas.

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 or convenience store parking lot. Bioretention areas can be used to treat stormwater hot spots as long as an impermeable liner is used at the bottom of the filter bed.

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. Bioretention can be used as a stormwater retrofit, by modifying existing landscaped areas, or if a parking lot is being resurfaced. In highly urbanized areas, this is one of the few retrofit options that can be employed. However, it is expensive to retrofit an entire watershed or subwatershed using stormwater management practices designed to treat small sites.

Cold Water (Trout) Streams

Some species in cold water streams, notably trout, are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature. In order to protect these resources, designers should avoid treatment practices that increase the temperature of the stormwater runoff they treat. Bioretention is a good option in cold water streams because water ponds in them for only a short time, decreasing the potential for stream warming. Furthermore, bioretention cells have been shown to decrease the temperature of runoff from certain land uses, such as parking lots.

Siting and Design Considerations

In addition to the broad applicability concerns described above, designers need to consider conditions at the site level. In addition, they need to incorporate design features to improve the longevity and performance of the practice, while minimizing the maintenance burden.


Some considerations for selecting a stormwater management practice are the drainage area the practice will need to treat, the slopes both at the location of the practice and the drainage area, soil and subsurface conditions, and the depth of the seasonably high ground water table. Bioretention can be applied on many sites, with its primary restriction being the need to apply the practice on small sites.

Drainage Area

Bioretention areas should usually be used on small sites (i.e., 5 acres or less). When used to treat larger areas, they tend to clog. In addition, it is difficult to convey flow from a large area to a bioretention area.


Bioretention areas are best applied to relatively shallow slopes (usually about 5 percent). However, sufficient slope is needed at the site to ensure that water that enters the bioretention area can be connected with the storm drain system. These stormwater management practices are most often applied to parking lots or residential landscaped areas, which generally have shallow slopes.


Bioretention areas can be applied in almost any soils or topography, since runoff percolates through a man-made soil bed and is returned to the stormwater system.

Ground Water

Bioretention should be separated somewhat from the ground water to ensure that the ground water table never intersects with the bed of the bioretention facility. This design consideration prevents possible ground water contamination.

Design Considerations

Specific designs may vary considerably, depending on site constraints or preferences of the designer or community. There are some features, however, that should be incorporated into most bioretention area designs. These design features can be divided into five basic categories: pretreatment, treatment, conveyance, maintenance reduction, and landscaping.


Pretreatment refers to features of a management practice that cause coarse sediment particles and their associated pollutants to settle. Incorporating pretreatment helps to reduce the maintenance burden of bioretention and reduces the likelihood that the soil bed will clog over time. Several different mechanisms can be used to provide pretreatment in bioretention facilities. Often, runoff is directed to a grass channel or filter strip to filter out coarse materials before the runoff flows into the filter bed of the bioretention area. Other features may include a pea gravel diaphragm, which acts to spread flow evenly and drop out larger particles.


Treatment design features help enhance the ability of a stormwater management practice to remove pollutants. Several basic features should be incorporated into bioretention designs to enhance their pollutant removal. The bioretention system should be sized between 5 and 10 percent of the impervious area draining to it. The practice should be designed with a soil bed that is a sand/soil matrix, with a mulch layer above the soil bed. The bioretention area should be designed to pond a small amount of water (6-9 inches) above the filter bed.


Conveyance of stormwater runoff into and through a stormwater practice is a critical component of any stormwater management plan. Stormwater should be conveyed to and from practices safely and to minimize erosion potential. Ideally, some stormwater treatment can be achieved during conveyance to and from the practice.

Bioretention practices often are designed with an underdrain system to collect filtered runoff at the bottom of the filter bed and direct it to the storm drain system. An underdrain is a perforated pipe system in a gravel bed, installed on the bottom of the filter bed. Designers should provide an overflow structure to convey flow from storms that are not treated by the bioretention facility to the storm drain.

Maintenance Reduction

In addition to regular maintenance activities needed to maintain the function of stormwater practices, some design features can be incorporated to reduce the required maintenance of a practice. Designers should ensure that the bioretention area is easily accessible for maintenance.


Landscaping is critical to the function and aesthetic value of bioretention areas. It is preferable to plant the area with native vegetation, or plants that provide habitat value, where possible. Another important design feature is to select species that can withstand the hydrologic regime they will experience. At the bottom of the bioretention facility, plants that tolerate both wet and dry conditions are preferable. At the edges, which will remain primarily dry, upland species will be the most resilient. Finally, it is best to select a combination of trees, shrubs, and herbaceous materials.

Design Variations

One design alternative to the traditional bioretention practice is the use of a "partial exfiltration" system, used to promote ground water recharge. Other design modifications may make this practice more effective in arid or cold climates.

Partial Exfiltration

In one design variation of the bioretention system, the underdrain is only installed on part of the bottom of the bioretention system. This design alternative allows for some infiltration, with the underdrain acting as more of an overflow. This system can be applied only when the soils and other characteristics are appropriate for infiltration (see Infiltration Trench and Infiltration Basin).

Arid Climates

In arid climates, bioretention areas should be landscaped with drought-tolerant species.

Cold Climates

In cold climates, bioretention areas can be used as snow storage areas. If used for this purpose, or if used to treat runoff from a parking lot where salt is used as a deicer, the bioretention area should be planted with salt-tolerant, nonwoody plant species.


Bioretention areas have a few limitations. Bioretention areas cannot be used to treat a large drainage area, limiting their usefulness for some sites. In addition, although the practice does not consume a large amount of space, incorporating bioretention into a parking lot design may reduce the number of parking spaces available if islands were not previously included in the design.

Maintenance Considerations

Bioretention requires landscaping maintenance, including measures to ensure that the area is functioning properly, as well as maintenance of the landscaping on the practice. In many cases, bioretention areas initially require intense maintenance, but less maintenance is needed over time. In many cases, maintenance tasks can be completed by a landscaping contractor, who may already be hired at the site. Landscaping maintenance requirements can be less resource intensive than with traditional landscaping practices such as elevated landscaped islands in parking areas.

Table 1. Typical maintenance activities for bioretention areas (Source: ETA and Biohabitats, 1993)



  • Remulch void areas
  • Treat diseased trees and shrubs
  • Mow turf areas

As needed

  • Water plants daily for 2 weeks

At project completion

  • Inspect soil and repair eroded areas
  • Remove litter and debris


  • Remove and replace dead and diseased vegetation

Twice per year

  • Add mulch
  • Replace tree stakes and wires

Once per year


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.

Flood Control

Bioretention areas are not designed to provide flood control. They can, however, divert initial flow which will aid in maintaining pre-development hydrology.

Channel Protection

Bioretention areas are generally not designed to provide substantial channel protection because at the scale at which they are typically installed they are not able to infiltrate large volumes. (They are typically designed to treat and infiltrate the first inch of runoff and are bypassed by larger flows that can erode channels.) Channel protection would be best reached by using bioretention cells in combination with other means, such as ponds or other volume control practices.

Ground Water Recharge

Bioretention areas do not usually recharge the ground water, except in the case of the partial exfiltration design (see Design Variations).

Pollutant Removal

Little pollutant removal data have been collected on the pollutant removal effectiveness of bioretention areas. A field and laboratory analysis of bioretention facilities conducted by Davis et al. (1997), showed very high removal rates (roughly 95 percent for copper, 98 percent for phosphorus, 20 percent for nitrate, and 50 percent for total Kjeldhal nitrogen (TKN). Table 2 shows data from two other studies of field bioretention sites in Maryland.

Table 2. Pollutant removal effectiveness of two bioretention areas in Maryland.


Pollutant Removal









Total Kjeldahl Nitrogen (TKN)


Ammonium (NH4+ )


Nitrate (NO3-)


Total nitrogen (TN)




Assuming that bioretention systems behave similarly to swales, their removal rates are relatively high.

There is considerable variability in the effectiveness of bioretention areas, and it is believed that properly designing and maintaining these areas may help to improve their performance. The siting and design criteria presented in this sheet reflect the best current information and experience to improve the performance of bioretention areas. A joint project of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and the EPA Office of Water may help to isolate specific design features that can improve performance. The National Stormwater Best Management Practice (BMP) database is a compilation of stormwater practices which includes both design information and performance data for various practices. As the database expands, inferences about the extent to which specific design criteria influence pollutant removal might be made. More information on this database is accessible on the BMP database Exit EPA Site.

Cost Considerations

Bioretention areas can vary from being relatively inexpensive to expensive. A recent study (Brown and Schueler, 1997) estimated the cost of a variety of stormwater management practices. The study resulted in the following cost equation for bioretention areas, adjusting for inflation:

C = 7.30 V0.99


C = Construction, design, and permitting cost ($); and

V = Volume of water treated by the facility (ft3).

An important consideration when evaluating the costs of bioretention is that this practice replaces an area that most likely would have been landscaped. Furthermore, the use of bioretention areas may reduce the need for other BMPs that require large tracts of contiguous land. Thus, the true cost of the practice is less than the construction cost reported. Similarly, maintenance activities conducted on bioretention areas are not very different from maintenance of a landscaped area; however, bioretention areas may actually lower utility costs by requiring less watering than similarly landscaped areas. The land consumed by bioretention areas is relatively high compared with other practices (about 5 percent of the drainage area). Again, this area should not be considered lost, since the practice may be the same size or only slightly larger than a traditional landscaped area. Finally, bioretention areas can improve upon existing landscaping and are often an aesthetic benefit.


Brown, W., and T. Schueler. 1997. The Economics of Stormwater BMPs in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Prepared for Chesapeake Research Consortium. Edgewater, MD. Center for Watershed Protection. Ellicott City, MD.

Davis, A., M. Shokouhian, H. Sharma, and C. Henderson. 1997. Bioretention Monitoring-Preliminary Data Analysis. Environmental Engineering Program of the University of Maryland, College Park, MD.

Engineering Technologies Associates and Biohabitats. 1993. Design Manual for Use of Bioretention in Stormwater Management. Prepared for Prince George's County Government, Watershed Protection Branch, Landover, MD.

Schueler, T. 1997. Comparative Pollutant Removal Capability of Urban BMPs: A Reanalysis. Watershed Protection Techniques 2(4): 515-520.

Information Resources

Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE). 2000. Maryland Stormwater Design Manual. [ Exit EPA Site]. Accessed November 16, 2005.

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.

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

Prince George's County Department of Environmental Resources. 1997. Low Impact Development. Prince George's County Department of Environmental Resources, Largo, MD.


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Last updated on August 21, 2012