Environment Agency highlights need for review of reservoir safety law

The Environment Agency has recommended reservoir safety legislation be reviewed to take into account the impacts of climate change and ageing reservoirs.

In October 2004, the Environment Agency became the enforcement authority for managing the safety of more than 2000 reservoirs across England and Wales, which includes maintaining a register of reservoirs and making sure that undertakers (owners, operators and users) have their reservoirs regularly inspected and repaired when necessary to reduce the risk of dam failure.

Releasing the biennial report today on reservoir safety, which covers 1 April 2005-31 March 2007, Chief Executive Barbara Young said overall compliance with the Reservoirs Act 1975 had improved since the Environment Agency became the enforcement authority, but there was still work to be done.

“Dams and reservoirs store large amounts of our nation’s water, but if owners don’t monitor their condition and repair them when necessary, the huge amounts of water that they hold can threaten life and property,” Barbara Young said.

“Reservoir undertakers are responsible for the safety of dams, including appointing supervising engineers, arranging inspections, and carrying our work where necessary. We’re in charge of making sure they do this.

“When we took over as the enforcement authority from local authorities, we faced a huge task. There was a significant backlog of non-compliance potentially placing people and property at risk, where some 379 reservoirs had no supervising engineer and 202 had inspection reports overdue.

“Since then, failure to carry out regular safety inspections has been cut by 80%, and over the past two years, we’ve issued 118 notices and prosecuted the undertakers at two reservoirs for failing to comply with the Act.”

Barbara Young said the Environment Agency worked hard to encourage reservoir undertakers to comply with the Act, but the risk of dam failure was likely to increase because of more extreme weather events with climate change and an ageing reservoir stock. The average age of dams in the UK is 110 years.

“Because of these issues, and along with our experiences over the past three years, we believe a review of the legislation is timely,” Barbara Young said.

Legislative changes that the Environment Agency has proposed include:

  • Better enforcement powers for reservoir (emergency) flood plans. Currently there is no legal requirement for an engineer to sign off an emergency flood plan, and the Environment Agency does not have the power to serve notice on a reservoir undertaker to prepare a plan or prepare one on behalf of an undertaker.
  • Funded powers to act at reservoirs with no owners. Reservoirs situated on land that is disclaimed following business failures have no legal owners, unless the Crown chooses to take ownership. This does not always happen. Currently there are at least two reservoirs in England that have no legally responsible reservoir undertaker.
  • Mandatory post-incident reporting. Currently it is a voluntary system and reservoir undertakers don’t always inform the Environment Agency about emergency incidents at their reservoirs. It would be in the public interest for all emergency incidents to be reported for lessons to be learnt and information to be disseminated to the industry.
  • Better definition of a reservoir within the Act. Currently the definition is volumetric, based on a minimum capacity of 25,000 cubic metres of water above ground. The definition of reservoirs should take into account the nature of the downstream community and possible consequences of a reservoir failure or dam breach.

The Environment Agency reports to Defra and the Welsh Assembly Government at two-yearly intervals on the actions taken to get undertakers to comply with the Reservoirs Act. Improving safety, protecting lives - the biennial report on reservoir safety - is available on the Environment Agency’s website.

Meanwhile, the Environment Agency is leading on a new Reservoir Safety Advisory Group to help with research and development. Key roles will include advising on the first 10-year reservoir safety strategy to be developed and overseeing the production of a guide to help reservoir owners prepare emergency plans for their reservoirs.

Key facts about reservoirs:

  • Under law, a large raised reservoir is classified as a body of water holding or capable of holding more than 25,000m3 above the natural surrounding ground level.
  • About 80% of the dams across England and Wales are made of clay and earth. The oldest dams were built in the 12th century, and many were built during the Victorian era.
  • The failures of two dams in Scotland and Wales in 1925, where 20 people were killed, led to the Reservoir (Safety Provisions) Act being passed in 1930. This was superseded by the Reservoirs Act 1975. The Acts made it a legal requirement for operators and owners to have their dams regularly inspected and repaired by government appointed experts.
  • Since 1930, when the legislation was introduced, there have been no dam failures involving loss of life.