The History of Stormwater Management

Updated on June 10, 2019
Steve Ambrose profile image

Steve brings 25 years of experience and an environmental and aesthetic background to residential stormwater management and erosion control.


How far back in history do we have to look to learn about the first stormwater management systems? The truth is, civilization has been designing and implementing such systems for thousands of years. Water is essential to live, so ancient communities had to find a way to effectively utilize rainwater – especially in areas where there wasn’t an abundance of water available. The ancient stormwater management techniques that were used allowed groups of people to survive, farm, and grow. And some of those techniques are still in use today.

Stonework – A Technique for Stonewater Management

One of the ancient techniques that was used to help redirect and capture stormwater is stonework. You can see this age-old craft in ruins of buildings, walls, canals and other historic structures that have withstood the passage of time. The art of stone working has been around for centuries – as long as the tools to make it have been being made by man. You can still find early examples of stonework around the world that show the amazing talent and innovation that ancient stoneworkers possessed. Structures like the Incan temples in South America, the great pyramids of Egypt, various Greek and Roman ruins, and medieval cathedrals in Western Europe are all examples of that talent and innovation.

Stonework as A Craft

Today’s stoneworkers in the U.S. design and create some of the most beautiful natural stone structures you’ll see. They have learned the craft in various ways – some through educational means and some though more traditional means. There are still stoneworkers who learned the craft because it was passed down to them from previous generations. These craftsmen are part of a guild system, where the craft is passed down through the families over centuries. Many of these types of stoneworkers come from Latin America, where stone working methods and techniques have stood the test of time for hundreds of years.

In this country, we don’t typically celebrate these types of long family traditions in skills or crafts, but we are fortunate to have many Latin American stoneworkers who now live and work in the U.S. It’s great because stonework can be very intricate, and the experience of the stone workers who create it often determines how structures look and function.

Stonework as Stormwater Management

Ancient stonework wasn’t simply a craft that was used for its appealing aesthetics, though. It was the technology of its time. For example, in Latin America, there are many places where there are steep mountain slopes where ancient people lived. How would their structures be prevented from sliding downhill in a heavy rainstorm? How would they capture the water they needed to survive?

In Latin America, ancient peoples used well thought out techniques, effective designs, and top-notch skills to implement stormwater management systems that sustained their people for tens of thousands of years. Look at Mexico City as an example, the canal system that they used was a complicated network of canals that would be full for half of the year and then drained for the remainder. This allowed them to have ample water during times of drought. The structures there are innovative even by today’s standards, yet they date back to ancient times.

What research shows about historical stormwater management systems is that they were carefully planned. Ancient engineers had to create systems that were specific to the locations where people lived. That meant thoughtful planning – they had to know if there were springs or other bodies of freshwater they could use as a water source, and how to transport water to their communities. They also had to know what the climate was like year-round. Would they have to deal with times of the year that had little or no rainfall? How could they capture and use stormwater when there was abundant rain? How would the water be stored and utilized on slopes and in valleys? How would water be designated for drinking? What about drainage? These questions, and others, are all considerations that ancient peoples had to think about regarding their water supply.

Archaeology and research have shown that the stormwater management solution many ancient communities used was stonework. Natural stone was abundant, and they learned how to use it to their group’s advantage. They built terraces to capture water on slopes, which turned steep mountains into pools of water. They were also able to create fountains that were intricately designed to separate drinking water, and drainage systems that kept stormwater from washing away buildings and other structures. That is incredible innovation!


How Does Looking at the History of Stormwater Management Help Us Today?

Studying the stormwater management systems that have been used throughout history gives today’s designers and engineers the foundation needed to address current water issues. It allows them to create a blend of contemporary and historical stormwater management solutions and practices that have worked in the past and will continue to work in today’s communities.

Americans are becoming more environmentally conscious, wanting solutions that are eco-friendly and that won’t deplete our natural resources. Unfortunately, many of the solutions that exist utilize manufactured materials and involve transportation energy and pollution. Returning to the methods of ancient engineers allows us to use native materials, including natural stone.

We can look back to the archetypes that still exist in Latin America to help us today. They have been able to endure because they were made of materials that do not degrade over time – specifically, natural stone. They have been there for millennia without deteriorating, so we are fortunate to have original systems to look at, learn from, and improve upon.

This preserved technology provides American stone workers and engineers with examples of effective stormwater management systems. And the best part is that they know are sustainable because these examples are still intact, even after thousands of years!

Final Thoughts

Stormwater is a free resource that everyone can make the most of when we learn how to redirect and capture it effectively, and natural stone is the eco-friendly, abundantly available material that can help us do that.

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Steve Ambrose


    Submit a Comment
    • Larry Slawson profile image

      Larry Slawson 

      9 months ago from North Carolina

      Really fascinating article. Thank you for sharing!


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