The Thames River was designated as a Canadian Heritage River in August 2000, making this year its 20th anniversary. The Thames and its watershed were designated based on the rich cultural heritage and varied recreational opportunities, supported by its diverse and unique natural heritage.
The designation was several years in the making. The effort began in 1996 when Dr. Douglas Bocking, retired Dean of Medicine at Western University, assembled a group of interested individuals and agencies who shared his vision of seeing the Thames and its tributaries designated a Canadian Heritage River. There were and still are many separate activities and efforts by governmental agencies and community groups in the watershed to increase the appreciation, enjoyment and stewardship of its features. The designation of the Thames has provided an overarching theme to provide common purpose and direction.
Dr. Bocking’s vision of increased awareness and stewardship for the watershed has taken root. Many projects have arisen, in part, because of this awareness. Below is a list of seven successful projects/outcomes:
1. The annual Thames River Cleanup was launched 20 years ago, right after designation, by watershed resident Todd Sleeper. He started the spring trash cleanup in his local community and soon expanded his efforts to the entire watershed, recruiting local volunteers to take on local reaches and bringing in local sponsors. The Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (UTRCA) provided early support to get the event going. In 2018, Todd received an award from the UTRCA for his efforts.
2. A river revitalization project called Back to the River was spearheaded by the London Community Foundation in 2016, in partnership with the City of London and the UTRCA. The goal is to create an accessible, inclusive community space that provides opportunities for economic gains and environmental stewardship and to transform the downtown core near the Forks of the Thames. A design competition was held and the successful design, called Ribbons of Life, includes features such as a lookout structure, pavilion, walking path and others. Several steps in the process remain, but there is optimism that elements of the plan will be realized in the near future.
3. Three books on the Thames have been released since designation. Richard Bain produced a coffee table book called The Thames: A Pictorial Journey. The late Dr. Michael Troughton, a member of the Thames Designation Committee, wrote The Thames River Watershed, A heritage landscape guide. Chatham historian Jim Gilbert published Looking Back, The Thames River, Ontario.
4. The City of London and the UTRCA recently spearheaded a major water management plan for the Thames River called The Thames River (Deshkan Ziibi) Shared Waters Approach to Water Quality & Quantity (2019). This project is a collaborative effort of numerous First Nations, federal and provincial agencies, conservation authorities, and municipalities.
5. There has been renewed interest in paddling all reaches of the river since designation:
- Local enthusiasts created a website called Traverse the Thames.
- The UTRCA posts water level data for paddlers on its website.
- Ontario’s Kevin Callan, aka The Happy Camper, produced a YouTube series on his solo canoe journey down the entire Thames.
- A group of volunteers produced “Thames River Paddling Routes” to share detailed information to promote local paddling.
6. The Springbank Dam in London has been decommissioned after years of debate. This historic recreational dam created a reservoir that was well used by paddlers and rowers in the summer, but its stagnant water and disruption of fish migration and endangered turtle nesting were serious concerns. When a gate mechanism broke in the newly-refurbished dam in 2008, debate raged over whether to repair it. After extensive studies as well as expert and public input, the increased awareness about the dam’s negative impacts on water quality and aquatic species helped sway public and municipal opinion to finally decommission the dam in 2018.
7. You know your river is generating positive attention when local micro-breweries name their companies or products after it! Forked River Brewing Company, based in London, and Upper Thames Brewing Company, based in Woodstock, are two examples.