Scotland’s freshwaters are essential for our health and prosperity. As well as being used for drinking, water is used by industry (e.g. distilling whisky and supporting fisheries), for producing energy (hydropower), and for recreational activities such as bird-watching, angling and water sports.

Key messages

Scotland has more than 125,000 km of rivers and streams varying from small highland burns to deep, wide lowland rivers such as the Tay. That’s enough to go round the Earth three times. There is also a 220 km canal network in Scotland.

Scotland’s lochs are an important part of our landscape and provide water for drinking and power generation as well as space for recreation.

There are over 25,500 lochs in Scotland, with the Western Isles and Sutherland having the highest concentration of lochs. The eight largest lochs cover an area of 301 km2 – almost five times the area of the 17,637 smallest lochs combined.

Many of the smallest lochs and lochans are on peatlands in the northern and western Highlands. Larger lochs are often found in U-shaped valleys that were formed during the last ice age. Loch Lomond has the largest surface area (71 km2), while Loch Morar is the deepest at 310 m. Loch Ness holds the most water with 7.4 million m3, which is more than all the English and Welsh lakes combined.

Many individuals, companies and communities rely on groundwater for drinking water, agriculture and industry. Groundwater also feeds wetlands and river flows during dry spells and is vital to the maintenance of their rich ecology and biodiversity.

The condition of Scottish rivers has improved significantly over the last 25 years and nearly half of our rivers are now in good condition or better. Almost two thirds of lochs surveyed are in good or high condition. Nearly 80% of ground water bodies in Scotland are in good condition.

The main pressures currently affecting the condition of rivers and lochs in Scotland are:

  • Man-made barriers to fish migration
  • physical changes to the beds and banks
  • rural diffuse pollution.

Groundwater quality is affected by:

  • Diffuse pollution from rural sources
  • discharges from industries such as mining and quarrying.

Groundwater flows and levels are affected by:

  • Agricultural irrigation
  • industry.

Ambitious targets have been set in Scotland’s River Basin Management Plan 2015-2027 for all surface waters. Go to the SEPA Water Environment Hub for more information.


In the interactive data analysis application below, you can view the current status and pressures of surface freshwaters and ground waters.

This data analysis application allows you to view how the overall condition, physical condition, water flows and levels, and water quality are expected to change over time for surface freshwaters and groundwaters.

Water - View the full data analysis application for further detail on all of Scotland’s water bodies

Others - View the full data analysis application for further detail

What are we doing?

The water environment provides many services and benefits that are either essential to us or that enrich our lives. It is important that we keep our freshwaters in a healthy condition so that they can continue to perform these vital functions.

River basin management planning is about protecting and improving Scotland’s water environment in a way that balances costs and benefits to the environment, society and economy. The new edition of the Scotland river basin plan (RBMP) is now available.

SEPA is working in partnership with other public bodies, industry and land managers to protect and improve the water environment by integrating the RBMP objectives into land use planning and flood risk management.

You can find out more about the actions to improve water quality, physical condition, access for fish migration, water levels and flows and prevention of invasive non-native species (INNS).

Water levels on lochs and rivers around Scotland are monitored, producing valuable information used by businesses, households and leisure users. SEPA monitors water levels at 392 sites throughout Scotland. Most of the stations are situated on rivers, but data is also collected from several tide and loch level recorders.

The Water Environment Fund funds projects that aim to help restore Scotland’s catchments from the source, through rivers, lochs and floodplains, into estuaries and out to sea.

Policy and legislation


Water Framework Directive (2000) provides a system for protecting and improving the condition of the water environment across Europe. This is done through River Basin Management Plans (RBMPs).


Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations 2011 –known as the Controlled Activity Regulations (CAR) – and their further amendments apply regulatory controls over activities that may affect Scotland’s water environment. These include discharges of wastewater or industrial effluent, and abstractions for irrigation, hydropower or drinking water, as well as engineering activities in or near rivers.

This legislation arose from the European Water Framework Directive, which became law in Scotland as the Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003 (WEWS Act)

The regulations cover rivers, lochs, transitional waters (estuaries), coastal waters, groundwater, and groundwater dependant wetlands. You can find more detailed information in SEPA’s Introduction to regulations and CAR practical guide.

Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003 makes SEPA responsible for coordinating the development of Scotland’s RBMPs.

Flood Risk Management Act 2009 provides opportunities to restore and enhance river habitats as part of a more sustainable approach to flood management.

SEPA has more information about water regulations in Scotland.

NetRegs provides a list of Water Legislation that may affect businesses in Scotland.

Scotlands Land Use Strategy sets out the need to demonstrate how an ecosystems approach might be taken into account in relevant decisions. Making the most of communities' natural assets: green infrastructure explains how communities and those who serve them can use water in a way that works with nature. These principles are embedded in River Basin Management Plan practice and will be given increased prominence in future RBMP delivery programmes.

Groundwater can be adversely affected by a range of activities and there is specific legislation and guidance covering each activity. SEPA’s website provides information on how proposed activities may have affect groundwater and how to comply with regulations aimed at managing and protecting it.

This page was reviewed on 08 Feb 2019

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Useful contacts

Diffuse Pollution Management Group (DPMG) - ensures that actions to reduce diffuse pollution are managed effectively by working together with rural, environmental and biodiversity groups.

Fish and Fisheries Advisory Group - supports the RBMP process and contributes to the development and delivery of relevant elements of river basin plans, including understanding the status of fish stocks in Scotland; and reviewing and improving our fish classification results.

National Advisory Group - advises on and supports the development of river basin planning in Scotland. It has a number of roles, including the preparation, delivery and implementation of the river basin management plans.

Responsible authorities - Responsible authorities are bodies that work with SEPA to assist with the development and implementation of river basin planning, and include:

River Basin Management Planning - SEPA is working in partnership with many sectors, public bodies and non-governmental organisations, to carry out these responsibilities and implement the plans. The RBMPs encourage new ways of working together to manage and improve our water environment through more effective co-ordination between partners.

Scottish Environment Protection Agency - has statutory responsibilities around the monitoring and regulation of water. SEPA also manages a £2million annual Water Environment Fund which provides funding to projects that aim to help restore Scotland’s catchments from the source, through rivers, lochs and floodplains, into estuaries and out to sea.

Scottish Water - Scottish Water is a publically owned company with responsibility for supplying mains drinking water and for removing and treating waste water. It is responsible for the network of water and sewer pipes. They provide 1.3 billion litres of fresh drinking water to homes and businesses across Scotland – enough to fill 52 Olympic-sized swimming pools – every day. They maintain over 30,000 miles of sewer pipes, enough to go round the UK coastline three times, and over 1,800 treatment works which take away 840 million litres of waste water every day before returning it safely back into the water cycle.

The Scottish Government - has policy responsibility for maintaining and improving the quality of all fresh and marine waters in Scotland.