The Rain’s a Pain & Drains Mainly…Where?

photo by Harry Lewen

Stormwater Drainage Systems in South Florida

By O’Neal Bardin, Jr.
Executive Director, Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District

South Florida’s terrain is low and flat and was once covered in marshes and swamps. Once development started in southern Florida, much of that land was drained and a system of flood control systems were put in place to counteract the loss of marshes and swamps. Flood control is achieved through an interconnected drainage system made up of swales, conduits, canals and ultimately the ocean.

Yards, streets and parking lots are also important features in the water management system. A neighborhood stormwater system is designed to store excess water in streets, swales, yards and low- lying areas during heavy rain in order to keep water away from homes and businesses. Some standing water is normal and expected after rain. Generally flood waters in these areas recede quickly as they are designed to direct water flow into storm drains; however, during periods of excessive rain or when the ground is saturated from prior heavy rains, it may take longer to drain.

Water management systems throughout South Florida are interconnected and can be affected by other neighborhoods in the surrounding area. Developments may be designed to drain through other developments downstream. If heavy rains occur in one area, the effects might be felt several miles away. If one section of the system is full, then more water cannot physically be discharged into that section, creating a backup at that point. Every neighborhood drains differently. If other neighborhoods are experiencing heavy rains, local and regional canals may not be able to accept all inflows at once.

Additionally, if the water table is high due to excessive rains, than water cannot soak into the already saturated ground, causing water to remain in swales and yards longer than at other times. Swales and grassy areas are important features in the water management system because they help to convey water, but in addition, they help to recharge the underground aquifer and improve water quality by filtering out sediments and nutrients.

Northern Palm Beach County Improvement District is constantly inspecting and maintaining its various swales, culverts, canals, and pump stations in order to ensure that the system is in top operating condition. Staff members are on call 24/7 to monitor and remotely operate many of the water control structures within the District.

Prior to a storm event, Northern staff will monitor water levels and may lower the water level below a designed control point if warranted and within South Florida Water Management District’s approved procedures. Northern is in contact with the South Florida Water Management District, Palm Beach County and surrounding municipalities prior to and during storm events as needed.

We live in an area where seasonal rains fall on low, flat lands that offer little natural drainage. The natural slope of land from Lake Okeechobee south to Florida Bay is only about one inch per mile.

(Source: SFWMD) Most drainage is through the interconnected waterways and structures designed to alleviate flooding as quickly as possible. Understanding how this system works as well as its limitations may help ease the concerns of residents in our area. You can learn more at .

NPDES tip: Dirt, oil, and debris that collect in parking lots and paved areas can be washed into the storm sewer system and eventually enter local waterbodies. Sweep up litter and debris from sidewalks, driveways and parking lots, especially around storm drains.

Where Does All the Water Go?

Story and photos by Barbara Bose

It’s a rare event when Ironhorse floods, but it does happen. “Don’t worry,” we are told, “the water management people have it all handled.” But who are those water management people? And what exactly are all of those big valves and pipes and things that we look at every day? Since we are literally surrounded by large amounts of water, I thought this page would be helpful to understand the Ironhorse waterscape during an extreme water event (flooding) due to a large, sudden rainstorm or heaven forbid, a hurricane (known as the H-Word in water management circles).

Well, to start, there is more than one group of dedicated professionals that deal with our water in general. There’s the City of West Palm Beach which monitors and manages the watershed, including Grassy Waters Preserve, the city’s drinking water. The City handles our sewers and wastewater. But stormwater is not wastewater and in general, stormwater does not go into our sewers.

And the agency responsible for managing our excess stormwater is the North Palm Beach County Improvement District (NPBCID).  The NPBCID tirelessly monitors our water levels by making sure the ponds and lakes have the right amount of water.

The NPBCID answer to the larger South Florida Water Management District (SFWMD) which manages the water resources in the southern half of the state by balancing and improving flood control, water supply, water quality and natural systems, including the canals which ferry water out to sea. During intense weather events such as a tropical depression or Hurricane, the NPBCID is in constant contact with the meteorologists at the SFWMD. In addition the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors our water for physical, chemical and biological factors.

Check out the map below that depicts the course our excess water flows out to sea. Bottom line: During a major flooding event, we depend on the South Florida Water Management District to greenlight our excess water to enter their managed C-17 canal, and there are several other neighborhoods between us and the ocean. Sometimes we will have to wait our turn, which means water could sit here a while.


Map by Barbara Bose

Coming soon –  more about the pump house on Jog Road.

Click to open a larger image

Who You Gonna Call?

Important numbers in a flood emergency

City of West Palm Beach Central Operations Emergency office at (561) 822-2210

Hurricane information (561) 822-2222

Know Your Water Works – a glossary of terms

You’ve seen these water management thingies because they are part of our everyday landscape. But do you know what they actually are or what they are for? Here are some vocabulary words that will help identify what we are looking at. 

Aerators – much more than pretty.

Aerators – Not just a pretty decoration, aerators add important oxygen to fight excess algae and weed growth which is good for the wildlife. They also break up gunk in the water.

Automatic flushing system

Automatic Flushing System – this releases excess water from the water main into the storm drain.

Berms protect against flooding.

Berm – a raised flat strip of land bordering a canal or river. Most of the community is surrounded by a berm.

Water catchments, also known as a stormwater drain.

Catch Basin: (a.k.a. storm drain). It is important to keep all of our drains clear of debris because this is the most important method of taking excess water away from the street and into the lakes and ponds. These are connected to underground pipes (culverts) that send water to the lakes and ponds in the golf course.

Beautiful Grassy Waters, our neighbor to the west, is a water catchment area

Catchment Area – a large area that stores water. Grassy Waters is a catchment area.

All of Ironhorse’s culverts eventually lead water to the pump house on Jog Road.

Culvert: A culvert is an underground pipe that relieves drainage from the catch basins (roadside drains) and swales and connect to the lakes that lead west to east to each other, eventually flowing through to the pump station on Jog Road and beyond.


Swales are an important defense against flooding.

Swale: Swales are probably our most important defense against excess road flooding. These are designed to hold water that will eventually seep into the water catch basins. They also act as filters that help purify the water and slow down the rate of seepage into the drains so they do not become overwhelmed. Be sure to keep debris out of the swales and keep the grass trimmed inside. Unfortunately, very often swales have been filled in because they don’t look like the graciously sweeping lawn of a property owner’s dreams. This only hurts everyone in the long run.

A weir turns like a giant screw to control excess water entering from Grassy Waters.

Weir: There are two weirs along the golf course that control excess flooding from Grassy Waters.

City blackflow valves.

Wastewater pump station

Wastewater Pump Station: Part of the Ironhorse landscape, these have nothing to do with storm water but are part of City of WPB Utilities.


Backflow Valves: Also part of the Ironhorse landscape, these also have nothing to do with storm water but are part of City of WPB Utilities that manages our sewers.

But Wait – that’s not all!

Pump house to Grassy Waters by the second tee of the golf course

Pump house along the southern edge of the golf course.

Water intake for Grassy Waters that filters out gators, coconuts and weeds.

Basically excess water flows from east to west, but sometimes the opposite happens. Our westerly neighbor, Grassy Waters, a crucial wildlife habitat, usually has quite a bit of water. But sometimes it dries up and needs a little of our excess water, so two pump stations were built for that purpose. If you are a golfer you may have seen the fenced in equipment – one sits on our western edge near the 2nd tee sends extra water from the nature preserve into Grassy Waters. The other pump station is on the southern border near the 12th tee and sends excess lake system water into Grassy Waters. These are operated and maintained by the City of West Palm Beach and have nothing to do with the agency that handles the excess water that is sent to the canals.