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A reservoir (etymology: from French r servoir a "storehouse [1]), artificial lake or impoundment from a dam[2] is used to store water. Reservoirs may be created in river valleys by the construction of a dam or may be built by excavation in the ground or by conventional construction techniques such as brickwork or cast concrete.

The term reservoir may also be used to describe naturally-occurring underground reservoirs such as those beneath an oil or water well.



Valley dammed reservoir

Lake Vyrnwy Reservoir. The dam spans the Vyrnwy Valley and was the first large stone dam built in the United Kingdom.
Lake Vyrnwy Reservoir. The dam spans the Vyrnwy Valley and was the first large stone dam built in the United Kingdom.
Haweswater]] in the Lake District, UK supplies water to Manchester. A dam constructed in a valley relies on the natural topography to provide most of the basin of the reservoir. Dams are typically located at a narrow part of a valley downstream of a natural basin. The valley sides act as natural walls with the dam located at the narrowest practical point to provide strength and the lowest practical cost of construction. In many reservoir construction projects people have to be moved and re-housed, historical artifacts moved or rare environments relocated. Examples include the temples of Abu Simbel[3] ( which were moved before the construction of the Aswan Dam to create Lake Nasser from the Nile in Egypt ) and the re-location of the village of Capel Celyn during the construction of Llyn Celyn.[4]

Construction of a reservoir in a valley will usually necessitate the diversion of the river during part of the build often through a temporary tunnel or by-pass channel.[5]

In hilly regions reservoirs are often constructed by enlarging existing lakes. Sometimes in such reservoirs the new top water level exceeds the watershed height on one or more of the feeder streams such as at Llyn Clywedog in Mid Wales.[6] In such cases additional side dams are required to contain the reservoir.

Where the topography is poorly suited to a single large reservoir, a number of smaller reservoirs may be constructed in a chain such as in the River Taff valley where the three reservoirs Llwyn-on Reservoir, Cantref Reservoir and Beacons Reservoir form a chain up the valley.[7]

Bank-side reservoir

Where water is taken from a river of variable quality or quantity, bank-side reservoirs may be constructed to store the water pumped or siphoned from the river. Such reservoirs are usually built partly by excavation and partly by the construction of a complete encircling bund or embankment which may exceed 6 km in circumference.[8] Both the floor of the reservoir and the bund must have an impermeable lining or core, often made of puddled clay. The water stored in such reservoirs may have a residence time of several months during which time normal biological processes are able to substantially reduce many contaminants and almost eliminate any turbidity. The use of bank-side reservoirs also allows a water abstraction to be closed down for extended period at times when the river is unacceptably polluted or when flow conditions are very low due to drought. The London water supply system is one example of the use of bank-side storage for all the water taken from the River Thames and River Lee with many large reservoirs such as Queen Mary Reservoir visible along the approach to London Heathrow Airport.[8]

Service reservoir

Service reservoirs[9] store fully treated potable water close to the point of distribution. Many service reservoirs are constructed as water towers, often as elevated structures on concrete pillars where the landscape is relatively flat. Other service reservoirs are entirely underground, especially in more hilly or mountainous country. In the United Kingdom, Thames Water has many underground reservoirs built in the 1800s by the Victorians, most of which are lined with brick. A good example is the Honor Oak Reservoir, constructed between 1901 and 1909. When it was completed it was the largest brick built underground reservoir in the world[10] and is still one of the largest in Europe.[11] The reservoir now forms part of the Southern extension of the Thames Water Ring Main. The top of the reservoir has been grassed over and is now the Aquarias Golf Club.[12]

Service reservoirs perform several functions including ensuring sufficient head of water in the water distribution system and providing hydraulic capacitance in the system to even out peak demand from consumers enabling the treatment plant to run at optimum efficiency. Large service reservoirs can also be managed to so that energy costs in pumping are reduced by concentrating refilling activity at times of day when power costs are low.


Five thousand years ago, the craters of extinct volcanoes in Arabia were used as reservoirs by farmers for their irrigation water.[13]

Dry climate and water scarcity in India led to early development of water management techniques, including the building of a reservoir at Girnar in 3000 BC.[14] Artificial lakes dating to the 5th century BC have been found in ancient Greece.[15] An artificial lake in present-day Madhya Pradesh province of India, constructed in the 11th century, covered .[14]

In Sri Lanka large reservoirs have been created by ancient Sinhalese kings in order to save the water for irrigation. The famous Sri Lankan king Par kramab hu I of Sri Lanka stated " do not let a drop of water seep into the ocean without benefiting mankind ". He created the reservoir named Parakrama Samudra(sea of King Parakrama),[16] which has astonished archaeologists.


Direct water supply

Gibson Reservoir, Montana
Gibson Reservoir, Montana
Many dammed river reservoirs and most bank-side reservoirs are used to provide the raw water feed to a water treatment plant which delivers drinking water through water mains. The reservoir does not simply hold water until it is needed; it can also be the first part of the water treatment process. The time the water is held for before it is released is known as the retention time. This is a design feature that allows particles and silts to settle out, as well as time for natural biological treatment using algae, bacteria and zooplankton that naturally live within the water. However natural limnological processes in temperate climate lakes produces temperature stratification in the water body which tends to partition some elements such as manganese and phosphorus into deep, cold anoxic water during the summer months. In the autumn and winter the lake becomes fully mixed again. During drought conditions, it is sometimes necessary to draw down the cold bottom water and the elevated levels of manganese in particular can cause problems in water treatment plants.[17]


Hydroelectric dam in cross section.
Hydroelectric dam in cross section.
A reservoir generating hydroelectricity includes turbines connected to the retained water body by large-diameter pipes. These generating sets may be at the base of the dam or some distance away. Some reservoirs generating hydroelectricity use pumped re-charge in which a high-level reservoir is filled with water using high-performance electric pumps at times when electricity demand is low and then uses this stored water to generate electricity by releasing the stored water into a low-level reservoir when electricity demand is high. Such systems are called pump-storage schemes.[18]

Controlling watercourses

Reservoirs can be used in a number of ways to control how water flows through downstream waterways.

Downstream water supply water may be released from an upland reservoir so that it can be abstracted for drinking water lower down the system, sometimes hundred of miles further down downstream
Irrigation water in an irrigation reservoir may be released into networks of canals for use in farmlands or secondary water systems. Irrigation may also be supported by reservoirs which maintain river flows allowing water to be abstracted for irrigation lower down the river.[19]
Flood control also known as an "attenuation" or "balancing" reservoir, flood control reservoirs collect water at times of very high rainfall, then release it slowly over the course of the following weeks or months. Some of these reservoirs are constructed across the river line with the onward flow controlled by an orifice plate. When river flow exceeds the capacity of the orifice plate water builds behind the dam but as soon as the flow rate reduces the water behind the dam slowly releases until the reservoir is empty again. In some cases such reservoirs only function a few times in a decade and the land behind the reservoir may be developed as community or recreational land. A new generation of balancing dams are being developed to combat the climatic consequences of climate change. They are called "Flood Detention Reservoirs". Because these reservoirs will remain dry for long periods, there may be a risk of the clay core drying out reducing its structural stability. Recent developments include the use of composite core fill made from recycled materials as an alternative to clay.
Canals Where a natural watercourse's water is not available to be diverted into a canal, a reservoir may be built to guarantee the water level in the canal; for example, where a canal climbs to cross a range of hills through locks.[20]

Recreational-only Kupferbach reservoir near Aachen/Germany.
Recreational-only Kupferbach reservoir near Aachen/Germany.

Recreation water may be released from a reservoir to artificially create or supplement white-water conditions for kayaking and other white-water sports.[21] On salmonid rivers special releases (in Britain called freshets) are made to encourage natural migration behaviours in fish and to provide a variety of fishing conditions for anglers.

Flow balancing

Reservoirs can be used to balance the flow in highly managed systems, taking in water during high flows and releasing it again during low flows. In order for this to work without pumping requires careful control of water levels using adjustable sluices. Accurate weather forecasts are essential so that dam operators can plan drawdowns prior to a high rainfall or snowmelt event. Dam operators blamed a faulty weather forecast on the 2010 2011 Queensland floods. Examples of highly managed Reservoirs are Burrendong Dam in Australia and Llyn Tegid in North Wales. Llyn Tegid is a natural lake whose level was raised by a low dam and into which the River Dee flows or discharges depending upon flow conditions at the time as part of the River Dee regulation system. This mode of operation is a form of hydraulic capacitance in the river system.


The water bodies provided by many reservoirs often allow some recreational uses such as fishing, boating, and other activities. Special rules may apply for the safety of the public and to protect the quality of the water and the ecology of the surrounding area. Many reservoirs now support and encourage less informal and less structured recreation such as natural history, bird watching, landscape painting, walking and hiking and often provide information boards and interpretation material to encourage responsible use.


Water falling as rain upstream of the reservoir together with any groundwater emerging as springs is stored in the reservoir. Any excess water can be spilled via a specifically designed spillway. Stored water may be piped by gravity for use as drinking water, to generate hydro-electricity or to maintain river flows to support downstream uses. Occasionally reservoirs can be managed to retain high rain-fall events to prevent or reduce downstream flooding. Some reservoirs support several uses and the operating rules may be complex.

Spillway of Llyn Brianne dam in Wales.
Spillway of Llyn Brianne dam in Wales.
Most modern reservoirs have a specially designed draw-off tower that can discharge water from the reservoir at different levels both to access water as the reservoir draws down but also to allow water of a specific quality to be discharged into the downstream river as compensation water.

The operators of many upland or in-river reservoirs have obligations to release water into the downstream river to maintain river quality, support fisheries, maintain downstream industrial uses. maintain recreational use or for a range of other requirements. Such releases are known as compensation water.


The terminology for reservoirs varies from country to country. In most of the world reservoir areas are expressed in km2 whilst in the USA acres are commonly used. For volume either m3 or km3 are widely used with acre feet used in the USA.

The capacity, volume or storage of a reservoir is usually divided into distinguishable areas. Dead or inactive storage refers to water in a reservoir that cannot be drained by gravity through a dam's outlet works, spillway or power plant intake and can only be pumped out. Dead storage allows sediments to settle which improves water quality and also creates hydraulic head along with an area for fish during low levels. Active or live storage is the portion of the reservoir that can be utilized for flood control, power production, navigation and downstream releases. In addition, a reservoir's flood control capacity is the amount of water it can regulate during flooding. The surcharge capacity is the capacity of the reservoir above the spillway crest that cannot be regulated.[22]

In the United States the water below the normal maximum level of a reservoir is called the conservation pool.[23]

In the UK top water level describes the reservoir full state whist fully drawn down describes the minimum retained volume.

Modelling reservoir management

There is a wide variety of software for modelling reservoirs, from the specialist Dam Safety Program Management Tools (DSPMT) to the relatively simple WAFLEX, to integrated models like the Water Evaluation And Planning system (WEAP) that place reservoir operations in the context of system-wide demands and supplies.


In many countries large reservoirs are closely regulated to try to prevent or minimise failures of containment.[24][25]

Whilst much of the effort is directed at the dam and its associated structures as the weakest part of the overall structure, the aim of such controls is to prevent an uncontrolled release of water from the reservoir. Reservoir failures can generate huge increases in flow down a river valley with the potential to wash away towns and villages and cause considerable loss of life such as the devastation following the failure of containment at Llyn Eigiau which killed 17 people.[26](see also List of dam failures)

A notable case of reservoirs being used as an instrument of War involved the British Royal Air Force Dambusters raid on Germany in World War II (codenamed "Operation Chastise" [27]), in which three German reservoir dams were selected to be breached in order to impact on German infrastructure and manufacturing and power capabilities deriving from the Ruhr and Eder rivers. The economic and social impact was derived from the enormous volumes of previously stored water that swept down the valleys wreaking destruction. This raid later became the basis for several films.

Environmental impact

Whole life environmental impact

All reservoirs will have a monetary cost/benefit assessment made before construction to see if the project is worth proceeding with.[28] However, such analysis can often omit the environmental impacts of dams and the reservoirs that they contain. Some impacts such as the greenhouse gas production associated with concrete manufacture are relatively easy to estimate. Other impact on the natural environment and social and cultural effects can be more difficult to assess and to weigh in the balance but identification and quantification of these issues are now commonly required in major construction projects in the developed world [29]

Climate change

Depending upon the circumstances, a reservoir built for hydro-electricity generation can either reduce or increase the net production of greenhouse gases. An increase can occur if plant material in the flooded areas decays in an anaerobic environment releasing (methane and carbon dioxide). This apparently counterintuitive position arises because much carbon is released as methane which is approximately 8 time more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide [30]

A study for the National Institute for Research in the Amazon found that Hydroelectric reservoirs release a large pulse of carbon dioxide from above-water decay of trees left standing in the reservoirs, especially during the first decade after closing.[31] This elevates the global warming impact of the dams to levels much higher than would occur by generating the same power from fossil fuels.[31] According to the World Commission on Dams report (Dams And Development), when the reservoir is relatively large and no prior clearing of forest in the flooded area was undertaken, greenhouse gas emissions from the reservoir could be higher than those of a conventional oil-fired thermal generation plant.[32] For instance, In 1990, the impoundment behind the Balbina Dam in Brazil (inaugurated in 1987) had over 20 times the impact on global warming than would generating the same power from fossil fuels, due to the large area flooded per unit of electricity generated.[31]

A decrease can occur if the dam is used in place of traditional power generation, since electricity produced from hydroelectric generation does not give rise to any flue gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion (including sulfur dioxide, nitric oxide and carbon monoxide from coal). The Tucurui dam in Brazil (closed in 1984) had only 0.4 times the impact on global warming than would generating the same power from fossil fuels.[31]


Dams can produce a block for migrating fish, trapping them in one area, producing food and a habitat for various water-birds. They can also flood various ecosystems on land and may cause extinctions.

Human Impact

Dams can severely reduce the amount of water reaching countries downstream of them, causing water stress between the countries, e.g. the Sudan and Egypt, which damages farming businesses in the downstream countries, and reduces drinking water.

Farms and villages, e.g. Ashopton can be flooded by the creation of reservoirs, ruining many livelihoods. For this very reason, worldwide 80 million people (figure is as of 2009) have had to be forcibly relocated due to dam construction.


The limnology of reservoirs has many similarities to that of lakes of equivalent size. There are however significant differences.[33] Many reservoirs experience considerable variations in level producing significant areas that are intermittently underwater or dried out. This greatly limits the productivity or the water margins and limits the number of species able to survive in these conditions.

Upland reservoirs tend to have a much shorter residence time than natural lakes and this can lead to more rapid cycling of nutrients through the water body so that they are more quickly lost to the system. This may be seen as a mismatch between water chemistry and water biology with a tendency for the biological component to be more oligotrophic than the chemistry would suggest.

Conversely, lowland reservoirs drawing water from nutrient rich rivers, may show exaggerated eutrophic characteristics because the residence time in the reservoir is much greater than in the river and the biological systems have a much greater opportunity to utilise the available nutrients.

Deep reservoirs with multiple level draw off towers can discharge deep cold water into the downstream river greatly reducing the size of any hypolimnion. This in turn can reduce the concentrations of phosphorus released during any annual mixing event and may therefore reduce productivity.

The Dams in front of reservoirs act as knickpoints-the energy of the water falling from them reduces and deposition is a result below the Dams.


The filling (impounding) of reservoirs has often been attributed to reservoir-triggered seismicity (RTS) as seismic events have occurred near large dams or within their reservoirs in the past. These events may have been triggered by the filling or operation of the reservoir and are on a small scale when compared to the amount of reservoirs worldwide. Of over 100 recorded events, early examples include the tall Marathon Dam in Greece (1929), the tall Hoover Dam in the U.S. (1935). Most events involve large dams and small amounts of seismicity. The only four recorded events above a 6.0-magnitude (Mw) are the tall Koyna Dam in India which registered a Mw of 6.3 along with the Kremasta Dam in Greece which registered a 6.3-Mw as well. Following those two, the next largest were the high Kariba Dam in Zambia at 6.25-Mw and the Xinfengjiang Dam in China at 6.1-Mw. Disputes occur over when RTS has occurred due to a lack of hydrogeological knowledge at the time of the event. It is accepted though that the infiltration of water into pores and the weight of the reservoir do contribute to RTS patterns. For RTS to occur, there must be a seismic structure near the dam or its reservoir and the seismic structure must be close to failure. Additionally, water must be able to infiltrate the deep rock stratum as the weight of a deep reservoir will have little impact when compared the deadweight of rock on a crustal stress field which may be located at a depth of or more.[34]


Reservoirs may change the local micro-climate increasing humidity and reducing extremes of temperature. Such effects are claimed by some South Australian winerys as increasing the quality of the wine production.

List of reservoirs

List of reservoirs by area

Lake Volta from space (April 1993).
Lake Volta from space (April 1993).
The following are the world's ten largest reservoirs by surface area:

  1. Lake Volta (; Ghana) [35]
  2. Smallwood Reservoir (; Canada)[36]
  3. Kuybyshev Reservoir (; Russia)[37]
  4. Lake Kariba (; Zimbabwe, Zambia)[38]
  5. Bukhtarma Reservoir (; Kazakhstan)
  6. Bratsk Reservoir (; Russia)[39]
  7. Lake Nasser (; Egypt, Sudan) [40]
  8. Rybinsk Reservoir (; Russia)
  9. Caniapiscau Reservoir (; Canada)[41]
  10. Lake Guri (; Venezuela)

List of reservoirs by volume

Lake Kariba from space.
Lake Kariba from space.

  1. Lake Kariba (; Zimbabwe, Zambia)
  2. Bratsk Reservoir (; Russia)
  3. Lake Nasser (; Egypt, Sudan)
  4. Lake Volta (; Ghana)
  5. Manicouagan Reservoir (; Canada)[42]
  6. Lake Guri (; Venezuela)
  7. Williston Lake (; Canada)[43]
  8. Krasnoyarsk Reservoir (; Russia)
  9. Zeya Reservoir (; Russia)

See also


External links

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