“We have a strong record of reservoir safety, and compliance with our safety regulations is good,” George Eustice, Former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said in July 2022. “We cannot however be complacent,” he warned. “The number of reservoirs in England is growing by an average of 15-20 per year, adding resource pressures for already stretched panels of engineers. Reservoir assets are ageing, which increases risks where investment is limited. In addition, the more extreme periods of drier and wetter weather expected as a result of climate change, will place increasing stresses on reservoir infrastructure.”

Following partial collapse of the spillway at Toddbrook Reservoir in 2019, Professor David Balmforth conducted an independent review to see if reservoir regulations offered enough protection for the more than two million households and properties that could be impacted by failure of such critical infrastructure in England. Common examples of poor practice were identified and various recommendations were made. These were accepted by the government that said there was “a strong case for improving safety practice, strengthening roles and responsibilities for owners, engineers, and the regulator, and for modernising the legal framework”.

One of the improvements underway includes development of proposals to ensure the future supply of reservoir engineers is more sustainable. At the request of the Department for the Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Professor Lord Robert Mair agreed to chair a review into the future supply of reservoir panel engineers that is being carried out by the Institution of Civil Engineers.

“The UK is now in a situation where there are genuine fears that we will lack sufficient qualified engineers to carry out these vital roles,” Mair said. “The goal of this review is to ensure that this risk is averted.”

Concern centres around the declining number of engineers that have been appointed to two key reservoir safety panels during recent years. In addition, there has also an increased demand for the services of engineers in response to changes introduced in the wake of the Toddbrook incident.

Writing in the New Civil Engineer, Richard Coackley, Chair of the Institution of Civil Engineers’ Reservoirs Committee, said that such specialist engineers provide a vital and prestigious role in reservoir design, safety and management. They require specific technical and practical hands-on experience of reservoirs, as well as standard professional engineering qualifications.

The review will develop proposals to secure the long-term supply of suitability qualified and experienced engineers to join official reservoir safety engineer panels, enabling them to carry out construction, inspecting, and supervising engineer roles in the UK. Efforts will focus on increasing the number of engineers on such panels in the short to medium term over the next five years, whilst also addressing the retention of reservoir engineers within the sector, civil engineering companies, other employers, and as self-employed engineers. The aim is to consider the attractiveness of the reservoir engineering specialism – for individuals and the commercial market, identifying measures that could be taken to improve and promote this within civil engineering, and to new entrants in the sector.

A call for evidence was published in May 2022 and work on the proposals will continue over the next few years. Early findings suggests that the supply of All-Reservoir Panel Engineers (ARPEs) to carry out the Inspecting and Construction Engineer role is the most pressing challenge facing the sector.

Practical barriers can hold back engineers from progressing through to the All Reservoir Panel of Engineers, and can include difficulty in acquiring sufficient work experience in specific areas, and the high cost of training and development. Although the experience of working alongside an ARPE is an important part of the development pathway to this role, it can be hard for a business to meet the costs of junior staff shadowing their senior colleagues within the fees available. There appears to be the expectation that potential ARPEs dedicate a significant proportion of their free time and annual leave to pursuing their professional development. Some fear that such a situation contributes to the poor diversity record of the sector.

There is concern about the “extremely low diversity of membership of the reservoir panels” and the review will look into how this can be improved. Currently, only 15 of 167 panels engineers are female. Such figures on gender balance are described as being “extremely stark and are very poor even in the context of the wider engineering sector which has struggled for many years with this issue”. It is thought that tackling the sector’s lack of diversity in the medium term could make a significant contribution to both the numbers of panel engineers available and the overall attractiveness of the sector to potential new entrants.

Looking to the future

Robert Mair, Chair of the review into the future supply of reservoir engineers, says that he acknowledges that “this is not a new issue” and he knows that many in the sector have “thought deeply about this subject over many years”.

“I am also conscious,” he continued, “that while the formal output from this review will be a report and set of recommendations for ministers, many of the potential solutions we have identified require coordinated action by a number of parties, including asset owners, engineering consultancy businesses, regulators, the administrations in the four nations of the UK, ICE, the British Dam Society and academia. I hope that this consultation process can itself help to build a sector-wide evidence base and consensus for action.”

This article first appeared in International Water Power magazine.