Water engineering in Poland

7 September 2023

Jan Winter, Agnieszka Dabska and Bartosz Bednarz present a brief historical outline of the development of hydraulic engineering in Poland, and discuss the most interesting monuments in the country, with a focus on waterways, dams and reservoirs built for flood protection and economic purposes, including energy generation

Water engineering, which mainly includes different kinds of water retaining structures, is one of the first and fundamental engineering activities of humankind. Ancient civilizations are identified with constructing reservoirs designed for collecting water, mainly for agricultural irrigation. Dam construction represents one of the most crucial engineering achievements. The ability to generate electricity and transmit it to where it was needed became a significant aim in dam development. Hydroelectric power plants use two essential elements of dam structures, the gradient and the water flow. Hydroelectric turbines, which convert the energy of flowing water into mechanical energy, are one of the most efficient devices to generate environmentally friendly and renewable electricity.

Dams constructed at reservoirs are responsible for water supply and power generation, as well as flood protection and inland navigation. However, over time, they have taken on other functions such as recreation, water sports and landscape enhancement. Today, the majority of dams and reservoirs are multifunctional structures requiring professional management as their various functions are often contradictory.

Despite Poland’s rich history as a central European country, its foray into dam and hydroelectric power plant construction came relatively late. Poland’s oldest dam in continuous operation is the Mylof earth dam (2394.6m long; 12.54m high), built between 1848 and 1853 on the Brda River (Figure 1). However, the Brody Ilzeckie Dam on the Kamienna River was built earlier (Figure 1). The Brody Ilzeckie Dam history is linked to the expansion of the Old Polish District, in the first half of the 19th century. A dam and reservoir were built at Brody to supply water to the local puddling plant (a plant where pig iron is purified from coal and other admixtures), in 1840. However, a catastrophic flood in 1903 destroyed the dam and other associated hydraulic facilities. The reservoir was rebuilt from 1959 to 1964. The dam is situated in its original location, with the preserved stone spillway ntegrated into the downstream slope of the dam, serving as a commemorative monument (Figure 2).

However, water engineering in Poland has its beginning much earlier. It can be especially visible in Silesia, where the Oder River marks the main axis with its numerous left-bank tributaries flowing out of the Sudetenland. About 20 weirs on the Oder River damming up water to drive the water wheels were already built in the 13th century. In 1343, 28 plants in Wroclaw used water power (waterwheel)– mills, paper mills, weaving mills, forges and timber mills [Winter, 2004]. The settlement increased on a massive scale, especially in the 15th-16th centuries. Hence, hydraulic facilities with many different kinds of water reservoirs were built, for the use of water resources (primarily for crafts and agriculture), to acquire new land and fight floods. Not surprisingly, there was a growing need for water engineering professionals and subject-related books. The first work by the Olomouc bishop Jan Dubrawius was published in Wroclaw in 1547 in Latin (in 1600, the priest Andrzej Proga published J. Dubrawius’ work in Polish, in Cracow) [Nyrek, 1997]. In contrast, the second book on pond-building was written in Polish, in the middle of the 16th century by Olbrycht Strumienski. In the introduction, he wrote that a pond management book had already been published in Latin in Wroclaw, but he could only read in Polish being a simple pond builder. His work, About Filling, Measuring and Fishery of Ponds, and about Canals, Water Weighing and Guiding. Books needed for all hosts was published in Cracow in 1573 (Figure 3) [Strumienski, reprint 1987, Taborska 2019]. It is the first civil and water engineering book in the Polish language to provide the expert knowledge necessary to construct small water reservoirs (ponds) and earth dams (dykes). As a practitioner, Strumienski devoted his work to levelling measurements by including drawings of simple instruments with instructions for their use. Figure 4 shows a simple device for checking the maintenance of the level, for example, the dam crest level.

At the end of the 18th century, Poland lost its independence for over 100 years, Russia, Germany and Austria occupied its lands. It significantly impacted the development of hydraulic engineering, which developed very differently in each of the conqueror’s countries.

Historic waterways

The first written sources in Poland mentioning inland water transport date back to the 11th-13th centuries. They refer to the privileges of free navigation on the Vistula and Odra rivers from the country’s inland to the Baltic Sea. The main cargoes were salt and herring. As the number of cities grew and the economy intensified, inland shipping developed, as in other parts of Europe. In the 18th century, for the first time in the history of the Oder River, a tour along the river identified obstacles in the riverbed that impeded navigation and designed the works needed to secure places at risk from flooding. The relics of these structures can still be found today. During the construction of the Malczyce Dam on the Oder River (1997-2018) (Figure 1), the remains of an old wooden sluice gate were unearthed (Figure 5).

Poland’s oldest canal, the Dobrzyce Canal (Figure 1), with a length of about 2600m, was dug in 1331-1334 on the initiative of the burghers of Zalewski, with the permission of the Teutonic Commandery of Dzierzgon. Its purpose was to enable the floating of grain and timber across the Drweca and Vistula rivers to the Baltic Sea. 

Around 1850, the widened and deepened canal was joined into the Elblag Canal system, which connected the Ostroda Lake system with the port of Elblag and the exit to the Baltic Sea. The first ship sailed through the canal in 1861. Along the canal route, there are unique ramps, enabling ships to overcome the difference in water levels. Their construction aimed to level out the 99.52m difference. Five slipways were constructed, the largest of which overcomes a difference of 21.99m. There are two trolleys on each ramp, using two parallel tracks. When one goes in one direction, the other goes in the opposite direction. The trolleys weigh 24 tonnes each, and they move up when the ramp is started. Then, when the trolley going towards the lower channel passes the top of the ramp one goes up, and the other goes down, and then they balance each other out. Conversely, both travel down in the final section when the trolley travelling to the upper channel passes the top. The short section where both trolleys go up determines the carrying capacity of the ramp – it can transport ships weighing up to 50 tonnes in one direction or two ships weighing up to 38 tonnes, each one in both directions at the same time (Figure 6). 

Currently, the route is used for tourism and due to its natural and cultural values, the area has been placed under legal protection in the form of the Elblag Canal Protected Landscape Area.

Another historic shipping route is the Augustow Canal (Figure 1). The first plan to build the canal was made in 1823, when the Kingdom of Poland had problems with access to the Baltic Sea due to the tariff war with Prussia. Work on the canal started in 1824 and was finally completed in 1838. Its operation began in 1839. Because of the division of Europe, after the Second World War, only 80km of the canal with fourteen sluices are left within Poland. Hence, three sluices and one in the border strip remain within Belarus. The Augustow Canal was entered into the register of Polish History monuments as early as 1968. It is now used for tourism and is one of Poland’s most beautiful canoe routes.

There are many routes among historic waterways in Poland, including the canals of the Vistula-Odra waterway (Slesinski, Górnonotecki and Bydgoski Canals), the Jagiellonski Canal or the now defunct Klodnica Canal. The Jagiellonski Canal was built in 1483. It connects the Elblag River with the Nogat River. It is 5.7km long and is the shortest inland waterway connecting Elblag with Gdansk. The Klodnica Canal was constructed in the first half of the 19th century. Unfortunately, only the remnants of old sluices remain today. The function of the old canal was taken over by the Gliwice Canal, connecting the Silesian coalfield with the Oder River. The location of the channels is shown in Figure 1. 

Damming structures and flood protection on Sudeten rivers

The Sudetenland is a watershed between the Oder, Elbe and Danube Rivers basins and is characterised by a very dense river network. Nysa Luzycka, Bobr with Kwisa, Kaczawa, Bystrzyca and Nysa Klodzka are the principal rivers in the area. The enormous historic flood in the area was the one in 1897, both on the current Polish side and on the Czech side (the area of the Jizera Mountains). That flood was also crucial for creating a system of flood protection structures. A few days in July 1897 permanently changed the approach to flood protection and led to the construction of many reservoirs, which were also built for purposes other than flooding, including power generation.

The flood at the end of July 1897 incentivised German engineers and technicians to take measures to prevent disaster in the future. Work was undertaken to develop the rivers and streams in the Sudetenland, which at the time belonged to Prussia. An ambitious plan was drawn to construct hydraulic structures such as dams and reservoirs to help harness the power of flood waters. The project included the construction of debris dams, gradually regulating streams, and constructing various water reservoirs (multi-purpose and for flood control) and dry reservoirs. Work had already begun in 1901. At the beginning of the 20th century, work was undertaken on the Klodzko Basin, the Jeleniogorska Basin and the Bobr Valley protection systems to avoid further disasters. Regulation of the tributaries of the Bobr originating in the Karkonosze was carried out with retaining walls along the banks, thresholds and debris dams. A dry reservoir, Stronie Slaskie on the Morawka River, was opened in 1907 and Miedzygorze on the Wilczka River, in the Klodzko Basin, in 1909. At the Karkonosze foothills, three dry reservoirs were built: on the Lomnica River in Myslakowice, on the Kamienna River in Jelenia Gora-Sobieszow and the Wrzosowka River with the Podgorna River in Jelenia Gora-Cieplice. The last one was built between 1904 and 1905. Dams and hydroelectric power stations at Lesna (1905) and Zlotniki (1919) on the Kwisa and Pilchowice (1912) on the Bobr were built later. Undoubtedly the largest of the completed projects was the Pilchowice Dam. Professor Otto Intze from Aachen was the leading designer of this dam, and even Kaiser Wilhelm came to participate in its opening. This is why it is worth taking a closer look at these structures. The location of the dams is shown in Figure 1.

Dry reservoirs

The main purpose of constructing a dry reservoir is a downstream area flood protection. The principal role of a dry flood protection reservoir is to intercept significant volumes of a flood wave in the reservoir’s bowl (limited by the dam) and to allow continuous outflow of water in a safe quantity to areas located at the downstream side of the reservoir. As a result of the flood protection programs launched after the flood of 1897, many hydraulic investments were made on an unprecedented scale. The outbreak of the First World War only slowed down their rapid implementation. Most of the structures, especially dry flood control reservoirs, were built on the rivers of Kotlina Klodzka and Kotlina Jeleniogorska. Some of them are worth discussing.

  • Miedzygorze. The Miedzygorze reservoir on the Wilczka stream was put into operation in 1909 (Figure 1). The valley was dammed by a stone dam (Figure 7), 110m long and 29m high, enclosing a catchment area of 25km2. The parameters of the dam discharge facilities are as follows: two bottom discharges 8.8m3/sec, middle discharge 15m3/sec, and surface overflow 37.5m3/sec. The maximum capacity of the reservoir is 0.83 million m3. Flows below the dam were estimated at 80-100m3/sec during the 1997 floods, which far exceeded the total discharge of the designed discharge elements. The structure, despite extensive damage, did not fail.
  • Stronie Slaskie. The dry flood control reservoir is located in the municipality of Stronie Slaskie on the Morawka (Figure 1) stream and has a maximum capacity of 1.38 million m3. The reservoir was built between 1906 and 1910 and was initially permanently filled with water. A 500m long earth dam closes a catchment area of 53.46km2. It has a bottom and middle discharge and a surface overflow (Figure 8).
  • Cieplice. The dry reservoir, closing a catchment area of 94 million m3, is located on the Wrzosowka stream in Jelenia Gora, in the Cieplice district (Figure 1). The structure consists of an earth dam with a length of 2925m and a maximum head level of 8.4m, a bottom discharge, a middle discharge and an overflow. The maximum capacity of the reservoir is 4.93 million m3.
  • Myslakowice. The Myslakowice dry reservoir is located on the Lomnica stream in the Myslakowice commune (Figure 1) and closes a catchment area of 49.6km2. A dam, upper and lower discharges, an overflow, three dike culverts, and a weir below the dike culvert are the basic facilities of that reservoir. The facility was built under the Karkonosze Mountains in the early 20th century in 1913 (Figure 8).

Multi-purpose reservoirs with constant head

The turn of the 20th century was a period of dynamic hydropower development across the world. That period was also reflected in Otto Inze’s flood protection programmes on both sides of the Sudetenland. Apart from the strictly flood-related hydraulic structures already mentioned, such as dams on dry reservoirs, multi-purpose reservoir construction began on a grand scale, many of which have been and still are used today for power generation.

  • Lesna. The dam in Lesna (Figure 1) on the Kwisa River is the oldest stone dam in Poland (Figure 10). The dam’s construction began on 5 October 1901. The laying of the foundation stone ceremonies was attended by the Minister of Agriculture, Wiktor von Pobielski, and the Overpresident of Silesia, Hermann von Hatzfeld. The dam opening ceremony, with an already filled reservoir, took place on 15 July 1905. The dam is located at km 89+750 of the Kwisa River at the mouth of a narrow valley. It closes a catchment area of 303.34km2. The height of the stone dam is 45m, the length and width at the crest are 130 and 8m, respectively, and the reservoir’s total capacity is 16.8 million m3. A hydroelectric power station was also built below the dam between 1905 and 1907. What is interesting about constructing the power station is that it was built only with funds from the Silesian province. The first three turbine sets were put into operation in 1907, followed by two more a year later. It is the oldest hydroelectric power station in Poland. The equipment of the power station has been preserved to this day in a very good condition. It consists of six Francis-type turbines made by J. M. Voith in 1907 with a total capacity of 2.61MW and SSW generators from 1907 and the present ones. The Lesna Reservoir with the Zlotniki Reservoir, commissioned in 1924 and above the dam, protect the Kwisa River valley from flooding, apart from energy purposes.
  • Pilchowice. The Pilchowice Dam (Figure 1) is the second-highest dam in Poland (after Solina) and the highest stone (arch) dam (Figure 11). Its height is 62m, and its length and width at the crest are 280 and 7.5m, respectively. It was designed by Professor Otto Intze and Dr. Curt Bachmann and built between 1904 and 1912 by the company B. Liebold & Co. AG (Holzminden/Berlin) under the direction of Alberto Cucchiero. The dam is located at km 196+513 of the Bobr River and closes a catchment area of 1208.7km2, creating a reservoir with a total capacity of 50.0 million m3. A 7.6MW power station was built below the dam. The power station consists of 6 turbine sets with Francis turbines made by Voith (initially 5, but in 1921 it was extended with another hydro set with an active power of 145kW).
  • Karpacz. The dam on the Lomnica River in Karpacz (Figure 1) is a beautiful stone arch structure made of granite blocks (Figure 12). Its construction was initiated by the 1897 flood caused by a cloudburst over Karpacz. That cloudburst destroyed bridges, streets and several houses and washed away the embankment of the newly built railway line. A decision was taken to carry out a flood prevention programme, which involved regulating the bed of the Lomnica River in many places. A dam was built between 1910 and 1915 due to the undertaken work. The dam’s function was not only to gather excess water. It also had to retain rock debris carried by water, which endangered local buildings. The dam crest is about 105m long, and the capacity of the resulting reservoir is about 540,000m3.
  • Lubachow. The dam and power station were built between 1912 and 1917 (Figure 1). The dam is a gravity-type structure (Figure 13), arched in plan with a radius of 250m, a maximum height of 44m and a length of 230.5m. It is constructed a on rocky bedrock made of biotite gneisses. The dam body, with a width at the base of 29m and a crest of 3.5m, was made of local natural stone and grouted with cement mortar. The dam is located at km 75+200 of the Bystrzyca River and closes a catchment area of 149.5km2. The total capacity of the reservoir is 8.0 million m3. A hydroelectric power station with three Voith Francis turbine sets was built approximately 1km away from the dam ‘s downstream side. A steel pipeline with a 1.8m diameter runs from the dam to the power plant.

Investments after 1918

The regaining of Poland’s independence after the First World War enabled the proper organisation of what is widely understood as water management. Plans for the development of water engineering attracted the interest of Gabriel Narutowicz (1865-1922), who was a professor at Zurich Polytechnic at the time. As a result of these efforts, he took a post of a Minister of Public Works on 23 June 1920. He undertook the organisation of water affairs, including setting up a hydrological service in 1921 and the standardisation of water legislation by issuing a decree on the consolidated text of the Water Law in September 1922. As a minister, he personally inspected water works and investments as well as determined plans for further work. He paid particular attention to using the Vistula River as a natural waterway and waterpower usage in the Podkarpacie rivers. In his works, he focused on the reservoir design in Porabka on the Sola. Gabriel Narutowicz was a proponent of the construction of a hydroelectric power station in the vicinity of Roznow (Prof. Karol Pomianowski was the initiator of the dam construction and the author of the first design) and pointed out other locations for dams and hydroelectric power stations, e.g. Czorsztyn (built only in 1975-97). He also contributed to issuing permission to construct the highest Polish dam in Solina (work started according to K. Pomianowski’s design in 1921; later interrupted several times due to the Second World War as well; finally, the dam was built in 1960-68). These dams are shown in Figure 14-17, and their basic technical parameters are summarised in Table 1. Gabriel Narutowicz was also the first Academy of Technical Sciences’ president, founded in 1920. His murder in December 1922, when he was elected as the first President of independent Poland, resulted in the loss of a significant authority in water engineering, one of the greatest in Europe at the time [Mikulski 1996. 2005].


The development of water engineering in Poland was very uneven due to the country’s complicated history. The first water engineering structures were built in the medieval period, followed by a boom and the construction of many structures during the development of the Kingdom of Poland. The loss of independence at the end of the 18th century and a different approach to the issues of widely understood water management in each part of the country divided between the occupants caused severe regression. Poland remained on the periphery in the 19th century, the world’s golden age for water engineering. The regaining of independence in 1918 raised great hopes and ambitious projects were created, but the outbreak of the Second World War slowed down the development of hydro-engineering again. Poland, however, can be proud of world-unique water engineering structures and solutions, some of which are introduced and presented in this article. 

Fig 1 Figure 1. The location of hydraulic structures in Poland
Figure 2 Figure 2. The Brody Ilzeckie Dam on the Kamienna River from 1964 with the preserved stone overflow of the old dam from 1840, incorporated into the downstream slope of the current dam (photo: Piotr Kuzniar)
Fig 3 Figure 3. Title page of Olbrycht Strumienski’s work published in Cracow in 1573: About Filling, Measuring and Fishery of Ponds, and about Canals, Water Weighing and Guiding. Books needed for all hosts. Reprinted with a foreword by Aleksander Nyrka. Published by the Silesian Institute in Opole. Opole 1987
Fig 4 Figure 4. One of the instruments for levelling in earthworks, included in the work by Olbrycht Strumienski
Fig 5 Figure 5. Remains of an old sluice, presumably from the 17th-18th century, excavated during the construction of the Malczyce Dam on the Oder River (photo: Jan Winter)
Fig 6 Figure 6. The Buczyniec inclined plane carriage on the Elblag Canal from 1860 with a level difference of 20.62m (photo: Jan Winter)
Fig 7 Figure 7. The dam of the dry reservoir in Miedzygorze (photo: Jan Winter)
Fig 8 Figure 8. The dam in Stronie Slaskie [https://polska-org.pl/892375,foto.html?idEntity=5170049]
Fig 9 Figure 9. The Myslakowice Dam in 1913 [https://polska-org.pl/3333378,foto.html?idEntity=5834987]
Fig 10 Figure 10. Dam in Lesna (photo: Wojciech Redowicz)
Fig 11 Figure 11. The Pilchowice Dam and Reservoir (photo: Jan Winter)
Fig 12 Figure 12. The Karpacz Dam (photo: Jan Winter)
Fig 13 Figure 13. The Lubachow Dam (photo: Jan Winter)
Fig 14 Figure 14. The Porabka Dam and hydroelectric power station [https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zapora_Por%C4%85bka]
Fig 15 Figure 15. The Roznow Dam and hydroelectric power station (photo: Jan Winter)
Fig 16 Figure 16. The Solina Dam and hydroelectric power station (photo: Jan Winter)
Fig 17 Figure 17. The Czorsztyn Dam and hydroelectric power station (photo: Jan Winter)

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