Debbie Arrington

Soggy no more: How to drain that seasonal backyard ‘lake’ for good

River rock tops a French drain, which can improve drainage in backyards prone to flooding.
River rock tops a French drain, which can improve drainage in backyards prone to flooding. The Wichita Eagle

Christine Dugger woke up after a recent winter storm, looked out into her East Sacramento backyard and discovered it was under water.

“You couldn’t see grass, just a reflection of the house,” Dugger said. “It looked like the whole backyard was a pond.”

Dugger wasn’t the only homeowner who discovered the soggy truth about their property. Examples could be seen throughout Sacramento as homeowners coped with too much water after years of too little.

“Our home apparently is at a low point,” Dugger said. “It didn’t even rain that hard for our yard to fill up.

“It took several days to finally recede.”

An important lesson learned during this very wet winter: Without proper drainage, landscapes quickly can turn into lakes.

Often, these instant ponds are fed by gutter systems that take water off the home’s roof.

NDS Inc. civil engineer Ryan Larsen, known as YouTube’s “Dr. Drainage,” cites rain gutters – or rather the misdirection of their flow – as a culprit for such drainage dilemmas.

“The most common drainage problem comes from rain gutters,” Larsen said. “Most people – and most homes – stop with the rain gutter’s downspouts leading straight to the ground. You’ve got all this water coming off the roof and pouring to just one point, where it can collect. It’s the most common drainage problem, and it’s also the easiest to fix.”

The solution: Extend the downspouts away from the house and foundation. Ideally, the extensions should take rainwater at least 10 feet away from the house, Larsen said.

NDS, which makes a broad range of water-related products, offers tips for how to tackle drainage issues at its online Home Drainage Center.

Other problems can be more complex.

“The No. 2 drainage problem is water in the garage,” Larsen said. “A lot of homes are built with a slope down towards the garage. Water entering the garage is inevitable.”

Rain also can collect in basements and under crawl spaces, creating more (and expensive) issues. A perimeter drain – a gravel-topped trench around the house – can help prevent this flooding, Larsen said.

“It redirects the water to a save release point instead of letting it pool around the foundation,” he said.

Installing a “French drain” – a buried perforated pipe that collects water and directs it away from the house – can help remedy backyard “lakes.”

That’s what Dugger used for her “pond,” and it “took care of it completely,” she said.

Such drains can be simple to install – Dugger’s drain was a two-day project – but be strategic.

If a home has clay soil, “People dig a trench, install the drain, then have this big pile of dirt they dug out for the trench,” Larsen said. “They want to just put that dirt back in the trench, but it’s like putting a dam on top of the drain. Water doesn’t want to drain through clay – and they still have a problem.”

Instead, backfill over the drain with sand, gravel, decorative rock or other fast-draining material.

Use that clay dirt to form berms to redirect the water away from the house and to that gravel-covered French drain.

“Otherwise, you’ve just created a bubble underground that the water can’t get to,” Larsen said.