Can You Swim in Reservoirs? What You Should Know

Are you an outdoor swimmer planning a trip to a picturesque reservoir to take a refreshing dip in its waters? While reservoirs may seem like the perfect spot for a swim, there are various factors to consider, such as safety risks, legalities, and environmental impacts.

In this article, we’ll dive into the specifics of reservoir swimming, from hidden currents and underwater hazards to local regulations and the importance of designated swimming areas. So, before you take the plunge, give this article a read to be informed.

Are you allowed to swim in reservoirs?

can you swim in reservoirs

Swimming in reservoirs is generally not advised, and the government often warns against it. In some cases, it may even be illegal to swim in reservoirs. However, the specific risks and regulations may vary depending on the reservoir and the area. 

Here are some reasons why swimming in reservoirs can be dangerous, even if it is allowed:

  1. Reservoirs are often man-made and designed to store large quantities of water for various purposes, such as flood control, water supply, or hydroelectricity generation. This means they may have different characteristics and hazards compared to natural bodies of water like lakes.
  2. The water in reservoirs may not be as clean as that in a swimming pool, increasing the risk of catching an infection.
  3. There may be no trained lifeguard on duty, making it unsafe to swim in a reservoir.
  4. Reservoir structures, such as dam walls, can pose additional risks to swimmers.

Despite these concerns, some reservoirs may not be significantly more hazardous than other bodies of water.

In some cases, swimming access may be allowed in reservoirs with appropriate information on specific risks and legalities.

A few examples of reservoirs where swimming is permitted include Sparth Reservoir, West Yorkshire; Rutland Water; Carding Mill Valley Reservoir, Shropshire; and Harthill Reservoir.

What are the legalities of swimming in a reservoir?

The legalities of swimming in a reservoir depend on the specific reservoir and the jurisdiction in which it is located. Here are some general legal aspects to consider:

  1. Local regulations: Some reservoirs may have specific rules and regulations prohibiting swimming. Check the local laws and guidelines before attempting to swim in any reservoir.
  2. Trespassing: Swimming in a reservoir without permission may be considered trespassing, which can lead to legal consequences. Always ensure that you have the necessary permissions and access rights before swimming in a reservoir.
  3. Penalties: The penalties for swimming in a reservoir illegally can vary depending on the jurisdiction. For example, in Connecticut, the fine for bathing in or polluting a reservoir can be up to $500, and imprisonment for up to 30 days. In some cases, a Class 1 Misdemeanor can result in jail time for up to 12 months, a fine of up to $2,500, court costs, and a permanent criminal record.
  4. Public access for recreation: In some cases, reservoirs may be legally required to provide public access for recreation, including swimming. However, this access may be subject to specific rules and regulations, such as designated swimming areas or seasonal restrictions.
  5. Safety requirements: Even if swimming is allowed in a reservoir, there may be additional safety requirements, such as having a trained lifeguard on duty. Always follow the safety guidelines and recommendations provided by the authorities.

What are the potential risks of swimming in a reservoir?

Swimming in a reservoir where it is prohibited can pose several health risks, including:

  1. Water quality: The water in reservoirs may not be as clean as that in a swimming pool, increasing the risk of catching an infection. Reservoir water is not treated in the same way as pool water, and there may be contaminants, pollutants, or bacteria present.
  2. Harmful algal blooms: Algal blooms can occur in reservoirs, producing toxins that can cause skin irritation, gastrointestinal issues, and respiratory problems if ingested or inhaled. Swimming in a reservoir with harmful algal blooms can be hazardous to your health.
  3. Currents and depth: Reservoirs can have strong currents and unexpected depth changes, which can pose a risk to swimmers. These factors can quickly drain your energy and make it difficult to swim, increasing the risk of drowning or other accidents.
  4. Spillways and water release: Dams have spillways where water can be released when the dam is overflowing. This release of water can create strong currents and sudden changes in water levels, posing a risk to swimmers.
  5. Suction near towers: Towers in reservoirs can create suction or water movement that can pull swimmers towards them, making it difficult to swim away and increasing the risk of drowning.
  6. Hidden structures: Dams and towers may have submerged structures or debris that are not visible from the surface, posing a hazard to swimmers. These underwater hazards can cause injury or entangle swimmers.
  7. Aerators: Some reservoirs have aerators that create air bubbles in the water, which can cause a sudden loss of buoyancy for swimmers and pose a danger.

What is the environmental impact of swimming in a reservoir?

Swimming in a reservoir can have several environmental impacts, some of which include:

  1. Contamination: Swimmers may introduce pollutants, such as sunscreen, body oils, and other chemicals, into the reservoir water. These contaminants can affect the water quality and have negative consequences for the aquatic ecosystem.
  2. Sediment disturbance: Swimming near the shoreline or plants can cause sediment disturbance, which can impair the growth of aquatic plants and affect the overall ecosystem.
  3. Spread of invasive species: Swimmers may inadvertently introduce invasive species, such as plants or animals, to the reservoir. These invasive species can outcompete native species and disrupt the balance of the ecosystem.
  4. Disturbance of wildlife: Human presence in the reservoir can disturb the natural behavior of wildlife, such as fish and birds, potentially affecting their breeding and feeding patterns.
  5. Increased pressure on swim spots: The popularity of swimming in reservoirs can lead to increased traffic, litter, and strain on local infrastructure and surrounding communities.

How can I find out if swimming is allowed in a specific reservoir?

To find out if swimming is allowed in a specific reservoir, you can follow these steps:

  1. Check the reservoir’s official website or contact the managing authority: Many reservoirs have official websites or are managed by local authorities, such as park departments or water management agencies. These websites often provide information on allowed activities, including swimming. If you cannot find the information online, try contacting the managing authority directly.
  2. Look for posted signs or notices: When visiting a reservoir, look for posted signs or notices that indicate whether swimming is allowed or prohibited. These signs may be located near the shoreline, parking areas, or other access points.
  3. Consult local regulations: Some jurisdictions have specific regulations regarding swimming in reservoirs, such as the California Code of Regulations. Research the local regulations for the area where the reservoir is located to determine if swimming is allowed.
  4. Inquire with local outdoor recreation groups or forums: Local outdoor recreation groups, such as hiking or swimming clubs, may have information about swimming in reservoirs. You can also search for online forums or social media groups dedicated to outdoor activities in the area to ask for advice or recommendations.
  5. Visit the reservoir during designated swimming times or events: Some reservoirs may only allow swimming during specific times or events, such as organized open-water swims or races. Check the reservoir’s website or contact the managing authority to find out if there are any upcoming swimming events.

What are the best practices when swimming in a reservoir?

When swimming in a reservoir, other than general water safety tips that apply to every other large body of water, here are some reservoir-specific tips:

  1. Know the depth and underwater hazards: Reservoirs can have sudden depth changes and underwater hazards, such as rocks, logs, or submerged structures. Always check the depth and be aware of any potential hazards before entering the water.
  2. Be aware of water temperature: Reservoir water temperatures can be colder than expected, especially in deeper areas. Cold water can lead to hypothermia or shock, which can impair your swimming abilities. Dress appropriately for the water temperature and avoid swimming in extremely cold water.
  3. Give dams, towers, and aerators a wide berth to avoid the risks associated with spillways, suction, loss of buoyancy, and entanglement with hidden structures.
  4. Understand reservoir currents: Reservoirs may have unique currents due to water inflow and outflow, as well as the presence of dams. Be cautious of these currents and avoid swimming in areas with strong or unpredictable water movement.
  5. Respect the environment: Reservoirs serve various purposes, such as water supply, flood control, and wildlife habitats. Be mindful of the environment and avoid disturbing wildlife or damaging aquatic plants.
  6. Obey posted rules and regulations: Reservoirs may have specific rules and regulations regarding swimming, such as designated swimming areas or seasonal restrictions. Always follow these rules to ensure your safety and minimize the environmental impact.