Tag Archives: check dams

Living at the Bottom of a Hill

Living at the Bottom of a Hill    —by Jinny Batterson

When we first purchased our most recent home, I didn’t pay a lot of attention to its topography.  Mostly I noticed that it was within easy walking distance of the home where one of our grown children then lived. Another plus to our downsize-for-retirement condo was that it was only about 10 minutes’ drive from our regional airport—a boon for visiting further-off family and friends. It sat on a small lot on one of two adjacent loops of privately maintained road near a major interstate in the central North Carolina piedmont. 

I soon warmed to the flexibility and freedom that living in a condo afforded: exterior maintenance, including most lawn care and landscaping, was handled by our homeowners’ association for a small monthly fee. Because our unit’s previous owners had been handy do-it-yourselfers, initially we had little indoor maintenance, either. For the first couple of years we owned the place, we spent as much time away from it traveling as we did “at home,” finding it in good shape whenever we returned.   

It was not until my first year of living in the condo full-time that I discovered a few downsides to our new living quarters. Along with the maintenance provided by the condo association came a good many rules and restrictions, some of which I learned about only after violating them. Then there was the smallness of the yard—rather than the previous acre-plus I’d had to garden in, the area of land that went with our unit was tiny: a small sliver in front and another small sliver with a northern exposure in back between an overhanging deck and a common area of woodland. The worst, though, was storm drainage.

front walk in hard rain

The four-unit building where we had one of the middle units sat near the bottom of a rather steep hill. Whenever we had what my mom would have called a “gully washer,” puddles formed along our front walk. Water seeped through our unfinished basement, whose back area of concrete slab was about ten feet lower than its roughly graded dirt-floored front. Rainwater from buildings further up the slopes came rushing down, washing away sod and lawn, silting in our minuscule back yard, causing deepening gashes in the landscape, piling up gravel and debris against bases of trees in the woodland commons, accelerating disease and decay. 

front yard washing away

Walking or driving in other areas of our hilly town, I took note of large scale efforts to deal with this “bottom of the hill” effect: retaining walls twenty or more feet high, stream buffers of woodland and brush, gravel or paved greenways along creeks, truckloads and truckloads of rocks and pebbles dumped along steep slopes and into low-lying areas, retention ponds of many sizes and shapes.

I became a late-life-learner about the rudiments of smaller-scale erosion control—appropriate landscape plants, rain gardens, check dams, terracing, mulch, mulch, and more mulch. Within the confines of our HOA’s covenants, sometimes to the annoyance of my neighbors, I’ve tried to find ways to reduce storm run-off and redirect it into less destructive channels. Progress is slow and intermittent. My guess is that there will never be a permanent solution, and that as the climate continues to change, the challenges of living near the bottoms of hills will become more severe.

Still, I’ve decided, there’s no better landscape in which to live. Flat areas can be just as damaged by prolonged rain events as hills. (Remember 2016’s Hurricane Matthew in eastern North Carolina or 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Houston?) Living on the crests of hills or mountains poses other challenges—water supplies do not arrive uphill unaided; lightning favors ridge tops. So I’ll keep working at stewarding this little plot that is mine for a time. By and by, the gullies may wash less destructively.             

Building Check Dams


Building Check Dams   —by Jinny Batterson

Slope wash in downpour

small side yard check dams

small side yard check dams

(Written in the aftermath of a devastating flash flood on Saturday evening, July 30, 2016, that temporarily turned Main Street in Ellicott City, MD into a river.) 

Floods are on my mind these days,
After I watched a Main Street near where I grew up
Wash people and pavement and cars downstream
In a temporary evening torrent.

The morning after, media types and politicians
Praised the bravery and cooperative spirit
Of residents and visitors who banded together,
Limiting loss of life.

Ellicott City started as a mill town,
Built in a steep valley centuries ago,
When we relied on water to run our industries.
I hope its foundations will hold.


Where I live now is steep in lots of ways.
The gradient between the top of our small
Condo community and the bottom of its slopes
Mirrors wider economic and political chasms.

Recently, our local cooperative extension service
Lent us an expert for an hour to tour our area,
To suggest flood-reduction strategies,
Among them check dams.

“Smily faces” facing uphill, made of anchored
Coir logs or variably sized rocks, these mini-dams
Slow water flow and reduce sediment, so less
Of a slope washes away in a storm.

In this sticky, disgruntled season,
I need to practice building all sorts of
Check dams.  Unlike certain pundits and politicos,
I have no sure solutions. Smily faces, though
May help just a little.