Overlooked and Underfoot: The Water Bar

Tom Pavlesich Monday, 25 April 2016

5.0/5 rating 1 vote

It’s a nice day in early spring as I bound out into the woods. The birds are singing and buds are breaking as I take a minute to appreciate something often overlooked under my feet – a waterbar.

Waterbars are simple, down-sloped berms of dirt dug into a trail. It might seem odd or even annoying to have bumps in your trail, but waterbars serve an important purpose: they divert water off the trail before it causes erosion.


Why are waterbars so important on trails? It has to do with all the traffic your trails receive. ATVs, horses, logging equipment, and even feet all press down on your trails, squeezing out the tiny air pockets between soil particles. In uncompressed soil, those air pockets let rain and melting snow seep gently into the groundwater. But on your trails, that can’t happen. Instead the water rushes down the trail, picking up energy as it goes. Unless that water is diverted off the trail into undisturbed soil—say by a waterbar—the water can wash away your trail surface. Over time, that erosion will cut your trail deeper and deeper, eventually making it impassable for recreation and timber harvests.

That erosion can also harm the water. As the soil from your trails travels downhill, it can wind up in your streams, ponds, and other water bodies. There it can smother fish eggs and pollute the water, making it less suitable for drinking by both wildlife and people.

Waterbars help keep this erosion from happening. When water hits a waterbar, the water flows sideways off the road where it can soak into the soil without causing erosion.

Waterbars aren’t solitary creatures. They work by making sure that water can’t gain enough speed to wash away your trail surface. To do that, they need to be spaced at certain distances. The diagram below gives you an idea of how far apart they should be based on how steep your trails are.

waterbar diagram

The steeper your trails are, the faster water will move over them. Since speed is energy, you’ll need more waterbars spaced closer together on steep trails. In flatter areas, though, waterbars can be farther apart.

Waterbars are just one of many Best Management Practices (BMPs) that you and a logger can use on your trails to help keep soil and your trails in place. For more tips on ways to protect your trails and streams from damage, check out the MyWoodlot Interest Protect Water.

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