Last edited 01 Jul 2021

River engineering


[edit] The importance of rivers in the built environment

Many of the world's greatest cities were founded on the banks of rivers. This was to enable their inhabitants to benefit from the opportunities offered by rivers in terms of food, trade and defence.

As well as providing a secure source of water to drink and irrigate crops, rivers provided early settlements with a ready source of nourishment. According to Natural England, the inhabitants of London consumed over 700 million oysters in 1864.

Before railways, which is when many of the world's cities were founded, boats and ships were the only economic means of transporting goods. Cities required efficient trading links to be able to provide for their inhabitants as well as to prosper. In the UK extensive canal networks were built to connect rivers and facilitate trade. The longest is the Grand Union Canal which links the north of Britain to the Thames in London.

Over time, as cities prospered and the use of the railway spread, the population's connections with rivers declined. Rising populations put increasing pressure on land; embankments were built and marshes drained. Rivers were contained, sometimes channelled underground. As more and more riparian land was claimed for development, urban watercourses were systematically polluted by industry. Many brownfield sites show the legacy of these times.

Olympic Park wetland bowl.JPG
The wetland bowl was an important element of the waterspace masterplan of the Olympic Park developed by Buro Happold. This brownfield development was designed to provide amenity, improve biodiversity and reduce the area's risk of flooding, with 4,000 homes removed from the local flood envelope following the development. (Image copyright LOCOG)

[edit] The role of the water engineer

Water engineers work to reverse these negative trends, reclaiming rivers as focal points of recreation, amenity and environmental value. Water engineers help developments understand the likely behaviour of rivers and help design teams reduce the risk of flooding.

The range of their work is outlined below:

[edit] Riverbank protection

This includes:

Riverbank protection Buro Happold.jpg
Steel sheet piling on the River Avon. In this project, ground anchors were relocated, surface water outfalls upgraded and moorings provided by timber fenders along the river frontage. Image courtesy Buro Happold.

Some river edges are undermined by geese eating riparian plants providing banks with their structure while others are at risk because of shipping or lack of maintenance.

[edit] Environmental and ecological enhancements

This may include working with environmentalists and ecologists, for example in the construction and planting of reedbeds.

Reedbeds serve a number of important functions:

  • They provide habitats and promote biodiversity
  • They offer opportunities for education.
  • They act as a water purification measure (at Heathrow Airport reedbeds were included in the scheme to purify water from the runways).
  • They provide a visual and recreational amenity.
  • They act to slow the flow of water. This action needs to be balanced with the water capacity required to ensure flood risk does not increase. It may be necessary to widen a river at the point at which the reedbed is created to offset its slowing effect.
Wetland Bowl on the Olympic Park during construction.JPG
The wetland bowl was an important element of the waterspace masterplan of the Olympic Park. The site under construction makes it clear how the river wall is stepped down and the surrounding area sculpted to hold water following a rainfall event further up the catchment of the River Lea.
Reedbeds on the Olympic Park.JPG
Once the wetlands had been planted with reedbeds the enhancement for local biodiversity and amenity is clear. Image copyright Alex Harvie.

[edit] Canals

Canal sluice gate.JPG
Sluice gate on a canal.

Canals are human-made channels that have been used throughout history for water conveyance (supply), or to service water transport vehicles.

Canals use engineered structures such as:

  • Weirs and dams: To raise river water levels to usable depths.
  • Looping descents: To create a longer and gentler channel around a stretch of rapids or falls.
  • Locks: So that ships and barges can ascend and descend.

The two types of canal are waterways and aqueducts. Aqueducts are water supply canals used for transporting potable water for human or agriculture consumption. Waterways are used for carrying vehicles transporting goods and people. They can be connected either:

  • To existing lakes, rivers, other canals or seas and oceans.
  • In a city network: such as the Canal Grande in Venice, the gracht of Amsterdam and the waterways of Bangkok.

Canals can be constructed in different ways:

  • A new canal can be created by excavating the body of the canal and providing water from an external source, such as streams or reservoirs.
  • Dredging a channel in the bottom of an existing lake which is then drained.
  • A stream can be canalised to make its navigable path more predictable and easier to manoeuvre. This involves dredging, damming and modifying its path.

For more information, see How canals work.

[edit] Wadi design

Wadi Hanifah Wetlands Buro Happold.jpg
Wadi Hanifa Wetlands in Saudi Arabia, (image copyright Arriyadh Development Authority).

This 120km long, 4500m2 watershed passes through the capital city of Riyadh. It has been developed into an environmental, recreational and tourism resource following an extensive development. The focus of the masterplan was to restore the Wadi's natural beauty which had been spoilt by decades of unfettered dumping and development. The Wadi had also suffered from seasonal flooding every 5-10 years and works improved its flood performance booth in terms of flood and dry weather flow performance, channel conveyance and water quality remediation and scour protection.

[edit] Level control structures

Level control 3d lock gate Buro Happold.png
A 3D image showing a lock gate with curved doors and a hydraulic control mechanism. Image copyright Buro Happold Water Group.

The work water engineers undertake on level control structures includes:

[edit] Navigation

This includes:

[edit] Waterspace masterplans

This includes developing strategic masterplans to balance competing needs such as commerce, waterfront, navigation, environment, education, amenity and recreation.

Waterspace masterplan Buro Happold Little Belhus.jpg
A waterspace masterplan by Buro Happold for Little Belhus.

[edit] Stakeholder consultation

On most construction projects, and particularly on those which involve water, there are a number of stakeholders, consultees and other third party groups. These include:

All these groups have valid and vested interests in river and coastal projects. The biggest cause of problems in the consultation of water engineering projects is late or insufficient communication with stakeholder groups. This may be caused by a lack of understanding on the part of the client team.

For example, many clients are not aware of the range of roles undertaken by the Environment Agency. A client may have a positive meeting with one team (eg ecology) without realising they need to hold separate talks with other parts of the organisation (eg flood risk).

It is always better to connect with stakeholders early and to be open about plans so there is time to establish relationships and build mutual trust.

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