The charity making life better by water

Looking after canals and rivers

Our canal network is unique. No two days are the same when it comes to looking after it. We have around 1,600 employees and thousands of volunteers working to make our waterways the best they can be.

Volunteers in hard hats and life jackets stand in thigh-high water at the bottom of a lock removing debris from the canal bed

Every time you step onto the towpath or take to the water, you’ll see the fruits of our labours. Our expert hydrologists, historians, ecologists and engineers work together to make sure you experience everything the canals have to offer. With the support of our volunteers, heritage and nature can coexist, and history is kept alive for us all to enjoy.

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Looking after our canals and reservoirs is an expensive, technically demanding and time-consuming activity. It requires a lot of skill and expertise
David Mould, principal hydrologist

What’s the challenge?

Our ageing waterways are exposed to the elements, never taking a day off. And they endure the wear and tear of ever-increasing use. Take locks for example. There are more than 1,580 working locks across our network, and altogether they’re opened around 4 million times a year. Each moving part needs maintaining to keep canals refilling with water.

Our modern world is also changing. Bridges must now support weights they weren’t designed to bear and canal banks need to be able to weather extreme flooding brought on by climate change. Without constant management and maintenance, canals would fall into disrepair and waterways would become unusable.

The role we play

Our water management and engineering teams keep our navigations open and accessible to millions of people each day.

Each year we spend tens of millions of pounds repairing canals breaches and responding to emergencies, undoing damage caused by collisions, patching leaks and fixing routine wear and tear. This includes hundreds of large-scale works, from replacing lock gates and repairing brickwork, to installing electrics and hydraulics at the mechanised points along our network. Our specialist workshops also handcraft hundreds of lock gates every year.

Maintaining our waterways

Our day-to-day maintenance work is essential to the smooth running of our waterways. At the start of each year we identify which areas need the most attention and schedule them in for repair. This could include:

  • bank repairs
  • dredging the canal bottom
  • managing waterside vegetation
  • pointing brickwork
  • mending handrails
  • filling potholes and keeping towpaths in good condition
  • mending customer facilities
  • rebuilding a complete lock chamber, bridge or stretch of canal wall.

And maintenance isn’t always planned. We respond to emergencies, such as bank breaches caused by storms or bridge strikes by cars and lorries, come rain or shine.

Managing our water

Water is our most precious resource. There’s an art to managing it, and this is where we come into our element.

Every time a boat passes through a lock, thousands of litres of water are used. Water also evaporates from the canals during warm and sunny weather, so it’s important we regularly top up the water levels, otherwise boats would run aground.

Supplies of water come from reservoirs, rivers and streams, as well as being pumped from underground. We have a network of pumping stations at key locations to pump water back up lock flights.

To strike the right balance between the supply and demand for water, we carefully monitor, model and manage water resources across the 2,000 miles of canals and rivers we look after.

Why it matters

Not so long ago, canals across the country fell into disrepair. Having outlived their use for industry, their upkeep fell by the wayside, and people lost access to a valuable network. Then in the mid 20th century, a revival began. Forward-thinking, passionate people saw the potential of canals started the journey that would bring us to where we are today.

We don’t want to see canals forgotten again. They are a national treasure and play an important role in our society, for people, nature and the economy. The engineers and navvies who built and used them would never have imagined just how valued they still are today.

With your support, we can continue to keep canals open for everyone to enjoy, where nature can thrive and heritage can be protected for future generations to experience for themselves.

Kingfisher in flight with small fish in its beak

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Learn more about the work our experts do and why it's so important

Last Edited: 08 September 2023

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