Water Works: Upper Lea Valley field trip

The Lea Valley is home to many of London’s largest opportunity areas and an extensive network of canals, rivers, and reservoirs. On 30 April, Future of London visited Walthamstow Wetlands and the River Lea to learn how waterways throughout the valley are changing as development increases and boater numbers continue to grow.

Improving London’s water management

The Lea Valley’s wetlands comprise 10 reservoirs which service 3.5m Thames Water customers—just under half the city’s population. However, London’s population growth and high water use puts the city at risk of water shortage in coming years1. Peter Massini, Green Infrastructure Lead at the GLA, revealed that Londoners use around 150 litres of water per person per day, which is 20L above the national average and 40L above what’s sustainable.

Consumer-end behaviour change is imperative but requires significant investment in water saving devices and education as well as better design standards in new buildings. The London Plan aims to curtail consumer use to 105L per person per day through such measures.

London is also at high risk of surface water and fluvial flooding. Green infrastructure on streets and buildings will help, but traditional green spaces are also important channels for flood risk mitigation. Many parks are along river corridors which can be re-naturalised to alleviate flood risk—LB Lewisham’s work on the Ravensbourne is a good case study.

Building a new nature reserve

Given the importance of the reservoirs for London’s water supply, opening the reservoirs to the public as Walthamstow Wetlands required a sensitive approach with multiple stakeholders. The project has been delivered through a partnership between Thames Water (the landowner), LB Waltham Forest (LBWF), and the London Wildlife Trust, with major funding from the GLA, Heritage Lottery Fund, Thames Water, and LBWF, plus contributions from neighbouring councils and landowners.

Wetlands reservoir
Lucy and Charlie explain the background to the Wetlands next to one of its reservoirs.

Lucy Shomali, Director of Regeneration and Growth at LBWF, noted that the Wetlands are at the heart of the Lea Valley regeneration area and an important asset to support growth. The design concept for the Wetlands was to create a central 1.7 km spine with multiple entrances, giving people from several neighbouring areas access to the extensive green space.

Keeping the Wetlands free to visit is critical for LBWF. For ongoing maintenance and staffing, the council seeks Section 106 contributions from nearby development, and is working with LB Haringey to secure contributions from regeneration around Tottenham Hale. Some income comes from venue hire at the refurbished Engine House. LBWF is also looking into using CIL.

Walthamstow Wetlands wildlife sightings
Look out for heron chicks, butterflies, and parakeets excavating holes during a springtime visit to the wetlands

Balancing people and nature

When the Wetlands opened in October 2017, LBWF expected around 180,000 visitors in the first four years; around 400,000 came in the first year alone. This was exciting but brought challenges, said Charlie Sims, Visitor Operations Manager at Walthamstow Wetlands. Visitors initially treated the nature reserve like a park, bringing dogs, barbecues, or trying to swim. The Wetlands team responded by adding guidance to the website, signs at entrances, and foot patrols to remind visitors about appropriate behaviour in a nature reserve.

A diverse roster of activities aims to attract a broad range of visitors. The Wetlands host numerous activities including mini-beast hunts and birdwatching sessions, while photography lessons and arts programmes tie in with LBWF’s Borough of Culture programme.

With several rare nesting birds on site, the team is careful to manage footfall. The main path through the Wetlands is always accessible during opening hours, but other paths alternate opening days to give seclusion to wildlife.

Regional reach

Many areas surrounding the Wetlands fall under the management of the Lee Valley Regional Park Authority. Set up in 1967 through an Act of parliament, the LVRPA covers more than 4,000 hectares of the valley. The LVRPA promotes leisure and nature throughout the park and is responsible for regeneration within its boundaries.

Head of Parklands Jon Carney explained that the organisation is partly funded by taxpayers in London, Hertfordshire, and Essex; funding fluctuates depending on boroughs’ own financial health. Venues such as the Lee Valley Ice Centre and White Water Centre provide additional funding.

Ownership of waterways throughout the valley is split: LVRPA owns the rivers and the Canal & River Trust (CRT) manages the canals. In some areas, LVRPA owns sections of the towpath but power to manage boats remains with the CRT. The two organisations work together on issues relating to waterways, but occasionally have different or even conflicting policies to work through.

Life on the water

As a boater and a staff member working at Springfield Marina, Joe Barclay regularly encounters both LVRPA and CRT. His employer, Vibrant Partnerships, receives funding from LVRPA to manage the Lea Valley’s marinas. Additional income comes from permanent moorings and craning (transporting boats). The huge growth in boating in London has impacted the marina, as the previously slack winter period has given way to year-round demand.

A 2016 survey by the CRT (PDF) found that 58% of London’s boaters use their boats as their primary home; around 43% of London’s boaters are continuous cruisers whose licences require them to travel at least 20 miles every 14 days, stopping at temporary moorings en route. Joe pointed out that, like land-dwelling Londoners, continuous cruisers like to be near public transport, which can cause congestion on the water around train and tube stations.

Unlike land-dwellers, cruisers aren’t always connected to water, waste, and energy networks; use of bottled water and petrol- or diesel-based generators is high. The CRT’s survey found that aside from more moorings, the top items on cruisers’ wish lists were more water collection points and waste disposal facilities. Joe agreed that the biggest need is more sanitation points.

Crime is also a problem. With police forces stretched, a group of boaters has formed Canal Watch London, which works with community safety officers and carries out voluntary group patrols of towpaths around east London.

Kayaking on the River Lea
Kayaking on the River Lea near Springfield Marina and Leaside Trust

Leisure on the water

Among the boating clubs dotted throughout the Lea Valley is Leaside Trust, a community facility providing outdoor education in watersports like kayaking and rowing. CEO Terry Kinsella wants to make the Trust an inclusive place for surrounding communities, running sessions for older people during weekdays and school groups during afternoons.

With Hackney’s Orthodox Jewish community living nearby, Terry started a rowing programme for Orthodox Jewish girls, which now has 50 participants and trainee coaches. The popularity of the programme led to a similar session for boys, and parents are now requesting a family club on Sundays. Some members of the Orthodox community have chosen to join regular boating sessions. The Trust gets income from membership fees and school sessions.

Growth in boater numbers has affected the Trust as continuous cruisers encroach on its water space. To adapt to space constraints, the Trust is trying things like sessions with stand-up paddle boards which require less space than other equipment.


Interested in learning more about London’s waterways? Visit the project page.


[1] The Green Infrastructure Task Force, established following the publication of the London Infrastructure Plan 2050, predict a 10% water shortfall by 2025, rising to 21% by 2040. See Natural Capital: Investing in a Green Infrastructure for a Future City, as well as FoL’s previous project, Managing London’s Exposure to Climate Change.