In many countries large reservoirs are closely regulated to try to prevent or minimise failures of containment.
While 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.(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"), in which three German reservoir dams were selected to be breached in order to damage 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.
All reservoirs will have a monetary cost/benefit assessment made before construction to see if the project is worth proceeding with. 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
Naturally occurring lakes receive organic sediments which decay in an anaerobic environment releasing methane and carbon dioxide. The methane released is approximately 8 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.
As a man-made reservoir fills, existing plants are submerged and during the years it takes for this matter to decay, will give off considerably more greenhouse gases than lakes do. A reservoir in a narrow valley or canyon may cover relatively little vegetation, while one situated on a plain may flood a great deal of vegetation. The site may be cleared of vegetation first or simply flooded. Tropical flooding can produce far more greenhouse gases than in temperate regions.
The following table indicates reservoir emissions in milligrams per square meter per day for different bodies of water.
Depending upon the area flooded versus power produced, a reservoir built for hydro-electricity generation can either reduce or increase the net production of greenhouse gases when compared to other sources of power.
A study for the National Institute for Research in the Amazon found that hydroelectric reservoirs release a large pulse of carbon dioxide from decay of trees left standing in the reservoirs, especially during the first decade after flooding. This elevates the global warming impact of the dams to levels much higher than would occur by generating the same power from fossil fuels. 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. 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.
The Tucuruí Dam in Brazil (completed in 1984) had only 0.4 times the impact on global warming than would generating the same power from fossil fuels.
A two-year study of carbon dioxide and methane releases in Canada concluded that while the hydroelectric reservoirs there do emit greenhouse gases, it is on a much smaller scale than thermal power plants of similar capacity. Hydropower typically emits 35 to 70 times less greenhouse gases per TWh of electricity than thermal power plants.
A decrease in air pollution occurs when a dam is used in place of thermal 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).
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.
Creating reservoirs can alter the natural biogeochemical cycle of mercury. After a reservoir's initial formation, there is a large increase in the production of toxic methylmercury (MeHg) via microbial methylation in flooded soils and peat. MeHg levels have also been found to increase in zooplankton and in fish.
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, from the Edexcel GCSE Geography textbook) 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. 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 also 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.[clarification needed]
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, some early examples include the 60 m (197 ft) tall Marathon Dam in Greece (1929), the 221 m (725 ft) 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 103 m (338 ft) tall Koyna Dam in India and the 120 m (394 ft) Kremasta Dam in Greece which both registered 6.3-Mw, the 122 m (400 ft) high Kariba Dam in Zambia at 6.25-Mw and the 105 m (344 ft) Xinfengjiang Dam in China at 6.1-Mw. Disputes have occurred regarding 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 100 m (328 ft) 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 10 km (6 mi) or more.
Reservoirs may change the local micro-climate increasing humidity and reducing extremes of temperature, especially in dry areas. Such effects are claimed also by some South Australian wineries as increasing the quality of the wine production.
In 2005 there were 33,105 large dams (≥15 m height) listed by the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD).