The aim of the Wallasea Island Wild Coast project is to recreate a natural intertidal coastal marshland to combat the threat of climate-induced coastal flooding. The recreated mudflats, salt and brackish marshes, saline lagoons, and pastures will provide a range of habitats for coastal birds and other wildlife on the Essex coast.
The project uses a technique known as “managed realignment” to recreate an intertidal habitat through the breaching of existing seawalls at strategic locations. These breaches, or holes, allow sea water in, and various kinds of ecosystems can be created depending on the height of the land being flooded. The land of the Wallasea Island will be heightened and extended using the clay, chalk, and gravel excavated from new underground rail line connections in central London. In total, nearly 1500 acres of tidal wildlife habitat will be transformed or created new, including approximately 133ha of mudflat, 276ha of salt marsh, 53ha of saline lagoons, 11ha of brackish marsh, 160ha of grassland, and 15ha of rotational arable fields.
Historically, Wallasea ‘Island’ comprised as many as five individual salt marsh islands. When seawall defences were added to the area to prevent coastal erosion, the landscape eventually evolved into the shape that can be seen today.
Since 2008, the Wallasea Island Wild Coast project has been in partnership with an underground rail line development project called Crossrail. The clay, chalk, and gravel excavated from their tunnelling in central London will be reused to heighten and transform the coastlines of the Wallasea area. The addition of these materials to raise land and extend coastlines is expected to allow approximately 2.1Mm3 of tidal water to enter the area once the sea walls are breached. This would require around 7.5Mm3 of imported fill material. The construction schedule to achieve the objectives of the managed realignment plan is determined by the delivery schedule of the materials from the Crossrail project, and is planned between 2016 and 2019.
The site is located near one of the world’s most important estuaries and one of Europe’s largest economic regeneration zones: the Thames Gateway. The Crouch and Roach Estuaries bordering Wallasea Island have been recognized, under the European Union Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds, as a Special Protection Area, a Special Area of Conservation, and a Wetland of International Importance through the Ramsar Convention.
In July 2009, the final design of the project received planning approval. Local authorities, yacht clubs, and various organizations were publically consulted and included in developing and designing the project plan.
The Wallasea Island Wild Coast project is a bold initiative to address the alarming amount of coastal change that has happened in this region of Europe. Over the past 400 years, the Essex coast has lost over 91% of its intertidal salt marshes due to accelerating coastal erosion and competition with agriculture for land. The project has set a high standard for 21st century conservation and engineering efforts, and is at a scale never before attempted in the UK. It jointly considers ecological and economic factors, for the benefit of future visitors, wildlife, and local community members for decades to come.
Perhaps the most innovative aspect of the project is the landmark partnership and collaboration between the project operators, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), and the underground rail development project Crossrail. By deciding to reuse the excavated materials from London’s new underground connections to achieve the managed realignment objectives of Wallasea Island, the two projects set a global standard for how waste material from large-scale infrastructure projects does not have to be disposed of in a landfill. Instead, excavated soils, clays, and rocks can provide flood protection to coastal communities and refortify coastal ecosystems. Equally, the project cooperation showed that it is possible to transport large amounts of excavation spoil from London to the Essex coast in a safe and reliable way.
The Wallasea Island Wild Coast project showed that despite the challenges, major land realignment can be undertaken in a sustainable way. The use of excavated materials from the London Crossrail project also illustrated a mutually beneficial solution for both stakeholder groups and is an example of cooperation that leads to smart solutions for the benefit of the environment.