Taking control of reservoirs

Ian Hope, a technical manager at the EA, spells out the agency's strategy to ensure reservoirs are safely operated and managed

For the past three decades local authorities in England and Wales have been responsible for enforcing reservoir safety. Under the Reservoirs Act 1975 it was the role of 136 individual councils to ensure the country’s 2,100 reservoirs were safely operated and managed to prevent the damage and injury that could be caused by an uncontrolled escape of water. Now, in a change brought about as a result of the Water Act 2003, responsibility has been transferred to the Environment Agency (EA).

Commenting on the importance of proper reservoir
operation and management, Doctor Andy Hughes, technical director for dams at KBR pointed out: “If we don’t look after the reservoirs where most of the nation’s water is stored, we could face a serious risk of flooding. When you consider the potentially catastrophic effect of this flood damage on our environment, our communities and our livelihoods, it is clear to see why we need the rigorous regime of inspection and supervision established by the act.” The control of reservoir safety was not always so closely managed. Safety legislation for reservoirs has only been around for a relatively short period of time, with laws brought into effect as recently as 1930. The Reservoirs (Safety Provisions) Act 1930 was passed following two major dam failures in 1925, which led to the deaths of 21 people.
This act was superceded by the Reservoirs Act 1975. Under this act, a ‘panel engineer’ must be appointed when any new reservoir is designed and built or repairs and changes made to an existing reservoir. Panel engineers are specialists in reservoir safety, responsible for safe construction, operation and maintenance. Reservoir owners (undertakers) have overall responsibility for safety.

They must commission regular safety and inspections by qualified engineers. Generally, inspections should take place every ten years. However, undertakers may be required to commission inspections more often if potential problems arise. Enforcing the requirements of the Water Act 2003 is a major task, needing a careful and consistent approach. In the early 1990s an industry review of the Reservoirs Act 1975 reported to government and the British Dam Society that giving responsibility to a single body would bring about that consistent approach to regulation. So, the EA took over responsibility for enforcing the Reservoirs Act in October 2004.

As the new enforcement authority, the EA is responsible for establishing and maintaining a register of reservoirs. Over the past year the EA has worked to develop an extensive system and compile a comprehensive database with the co-operation of local authorities. This database details all reservoirs to which this act applies in each of the EA’s 26 areas. The EA is also working to make sure reservoir owners have an effective system in place for inspection and maintenance. It is the EA’s aim to work alongside owners, supporting them in meeting the requirements of the act. The EA has also been speaking with most of the larger reservoir owners to promote a ‘no surprises’ approach to the industry. The EA wants to engage the support of the reservoirs industry in working with it to improve overall reservoir safety.

This area of work is familiar to the EA. As the leading public body working to protect and improve the environment in England and Wales, the EA is heavily involved in improving flood defences and providing information on flood risks. Together with its knowledge and experience as an environmental regulator, the EA is well placed to play a consistent and effective regulatory role. Briefly, the new role includes:

  • maintaining a register of reservoirs and making it available to the public,
  • making sure reservoir undertakers have regular inspections by inspecting engineers,
  • ensuring a supervising engineer is appointed for each reservoir in operation,
  • enforcing the act by making sure undertakers fully comply, warning, and ultimately prosecuting those that do not,
  • in the extreme event undertakers fail to comply, commissioning essential repairs and recharging the undertaker,
  • reporting to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Welsh Assembly,
  • acting in an emergency if the undertaker is not available.
  • The scene is set for an interesting new role for the EA. Looking to the future of reservoir safety in this country, it will ultimately be seeking to influence future changes to the current Reservoirs Act, which was drafted in the early 1970s.
    Later this year a new role of incident reporting will be introduced, allowing the EA to learn from problems and share best practice across the industry. From near misses and actual incidents that could result in uncontrolled escapes of water from reservoirs, the EA’s aim is not to develop a blame culture, but to encourage openness and honesty among reservoir owners.

    The Water Act 2003 also gives the Secretary of State/NAW the power to require flood plans to be produced for specific reservoirs. This is intended to be introduced in 2006. In the event a reservoir could cause a flood after an uncontrolled release of water, it is important plans are in place so prompt and effective action is taken and the emergency services, led by local authorities, can provide the necessary assistance.

    Together with a number of key partners, the EA is currently working with Defra on a future approach to flood planning that will ensure we have in place a unified and
    co-ordinated response mechanism. Undertakers will subsequently be absolutely clear about how their plans will be managed – they will be actively involved in the planning process and have firm links with the emergency services. This will ensure category one respondees (Civil Contingencies Act 2004) fully understand all the possible
    consequences of a dam failure, including the likely loss of life and infrastructure damage, so they can put in place the necessary contingency plans.

    The appropriate level of awareness subsequently needs to be raised with the public, with potential risk properly put into context. To ensure all this happens in a co-ordinated and consistent way, the EA will be working with Defra to produce an overall communication strategy. Defra is also planning to lead on a consultation exercise on flood plans later this summer. The EA has also established emergency procedures via the EA Floodline and emergency hotline telephone service.

    This is a fantastic new
    role for the EA and one that provides it with opportunities to further assure reservoir safety and apply a more
    modern and consistent approach to the regulatory role. The EA already has experience of managing the safe operation of its own 129 reservoirs and it shall use this experience as it takes on its new, enlarged role.

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