A new safety regime covering Northern Ireland's reservoirs is still not in place, despite legislation being drawn up six years ago.
In the meantime, there are several reservoirs across the region requiring "urgent intervention" to maintain their safety, according to a new report.
The Reservoirs Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 was designed to introduce new rules and regulations regarding the maintenance of reservoirs, however, an "administrative error" in the 2016 departmental reorganisation left the Act in "legislative limbo".
Further delays were caused by the Executive's three-year hiatus from 2017 and 2020, before the issue was resolved in June this year, when the Act became the responsibility of the Department for Infrastructure (DfI).
"A few parts of the Act have already been commenced," according to a paper by the Assembly research team.
"DfI aims to introduce orders and regulations to implement the key elements of the Act during the current mandate (by April 2022). When the Act has been fully commenced, the regulatory regime will be implemented."
The key features of the Act include the commission of reservoir engineers to supervise and inspect reservoirs, compliance from reservoir managers with reservoir engineers' recommendations, and registration of controlled reservoirs.
Controlled reservoirs are those with over 10,000 cubic metres of capacity - equivalent to four Olympic-sized swimming pools. There are 179 known controlled reservoirs in Northern Ireland.
"The new safety regime is not yet in place. The Act is primary legislation, which sets out the aims and general form of the regulations. Before it comes into force, the responsible department must develop technical details, such as the designation criteria, and put forward secondary legislation," the paper reads.
Alliance MLA John Blair, the party's spokesperson for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, said this is an outstanding matter that needs to be addressed in the interests of public safety.
"Departments have to work together to ensure all stakeholders can be assisted as much as possible in the delivery of the measures that are required to ensure that public safety," he said.
“The onus is on the departments to get this moving, through engagement with all the stakeholders."
While without the Act, DfI cannot enforce the new safety regime, in 2016 the department identified 45 reservoirs in poor condition, and reminded managers of their common law duties under common law to keep them safe.
In some cases, DfI directly employed reservoir engineers to carry out inspections. By the end of 2020, there were up to nine reservoirs deemed to require urgent interventions, some of which have since been completed, according to the research paper.
The report concludes: "DfI is now responsible for bringing the Act into force. Key policies yet to be announced include the reservoir designation criteria, and availability of capital grants for remedial works. Assuming the Act is brought into force by April 2022, a fully functioning reservoir safety regime ought to be in place by 2024.
"As a result, we may expect more reservoir engineering works, decommissioning and sales over the next few years. Ultimately, this should better protect our communities from the rare, but potentially disastrous, hazard of dam failure."
DfI said: “The Reservoirs Act (Northern Ireland) 2015 provides for the regulation of reservoir safety in Northern Ireland. The Transfer of Functions Order to assign statutory responsibility for the Act to the Department for Infrastructure (DFI) was only affirmed by resolution of the Assembly on 1 June 2021 and statutory responsibility for the Act was only transferred to DfI with effect from 2 June 2021.
“The Department is now in a position to be able to consider the way forward in terms of progressing the secondary legislation required to implement the reservoir safety regime envisaged in the Act. However, the absence of the regulatory reservoir safety framework provided for by the Act does not remove the common law duty on Reservoir Managers for them to ensure the safety of their reservoirs.
"In light of this the Department has been working with Reservoir Managers with responsibility and has written to them on a number of occasions to remind them of their responsibilities and to advise them to progress any safety related works.”