ENVIRONMENT: Water ecosystems worst on record in latest green watchdog surveys

Angling author Dick Dickson looks at the water quality near the Potts of Gartness on the River Endrick.

Investigation by Jamie Mann in The Ferret

Salmon picture by Stewart Cunningham

Scotland’s rivers, lochs, canals and burns are in the worst state on record, with more than 400 damaged by water pollution and other problems, according to the latest official analysis.

New assessment methods used by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) have more than doubled the number of waterways classified as “bad” between 2018 and 2019. There are “significant environmental problems caused by a number of pressures,” Sepa said.

The “ecological status” of many of the country’s iconic lochs were also bad or poor, including Loch Awe, Loch Doon, Loch Drunkie, Loch Katrine and Loch Leven. Ecology is one of many factors Sepa uses to assess a water body’s overall status.

Sepa says water bodies are classified by how much their condition differs from near natural conditions. For example, the status of water bodies in a near natural condition is deemed to be “high”, while those with “severely damaged” conditions are considered to be “bad”.

Campaigners said the pollution of Scotland rivers and lochs was “unacceptable” and demanded an environmental watchdog “with teeth”. Globally freshwater species were going extinct more rapidly than other types of species, they stressed.

The Salmon & Trout Conservation Scotland told The Ferret the new data showed that Sepa should be spending much more time ensuring that the source of pollution is “tackled head-on”.

“The original role of Sepa – to protect the environment – has been muddied over the years by giving it duties to promote economic growth,” said the group’s Guy Linley-Adams.

“The drift towards too cosy a co-existence with the industries it is supposed to regulate – publishing glossy ‘sustainable growth agreements’ – is worrying.”

He added: “Only if we have a proper environmental watchdog with teeth – one that is not afraid to bite when it needs to – will this negative trend in ecological status start to improve.”

Fisheries Management Scotland (FMS) warned that Scotland’s “native fish species need free access to cold, clean water.” “If wild salmon are to be safeguarded, action is needed at significantly more pace and scale,” said Dr Alan Wells, chief executive.

“This includes redoubling our efforts to ensure improvement of the ecological status of our rivers.”

FMS was working with Sepa “to address barriers to fish migration and deliver improved water quality and quantity in our rivers, through stopping pollution from agricultural run-off and sewage, tackling over-abstraction and ensuring better management of river flows,” said Wells.“Scotland’s rivers and the important species that rely on them, deserve no less.”

A hydrology expert from a Scottish university, who asked not to be named, highlighted that some lochs are more akin to reservoirs than natural lochs and do not have similar ecosystems.

For example, lochs Ericht, Garry and Tummel are used for hydropower, while Loch Katrine and others are used for water supply.

As well as changes to beds, banks and shores, ecological issues are caused by pollution from fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture, waste water, sewage and industrial waste, as well as historical mining activity, he highlighted.

This means that rivers like the Dee and Tay with good ecology in most parts are impacted by pollution flowing in from smaller rivers and burns. Scotland experienced a prolonged drought in 2017 and 2018, and drought issues may have affected water ecology in 2019, he said.

This could have led to water quality issues like high temperatures and lower oxygen levels, and resulted in “ecological consequences, especially to cold water species common in Scotland’s rivers”.

The hydrologist added: “These conditions are likely to occur more frequently with climate change.”

A Sepa spokesperson said: “Most of Scotland’s water environment is already in a good condition and subject to fewer pressures than most other European waters.

“However, there are significant environmental problems caused by a number of pressures, including diffuse and point source pollution, alterations to beds, banks and shores, alterations to water levels and flows and the presence of invasive non-native species.”

The results of Sepa’s assessments “can be used to set objectives for improving the water environment through river basin management planning”.

In December 2020, Sepa published the consultations for its Draft River Basin Management Plan 2021-2027, which ran until June 2021. The feedback is informing the development of the final plans, due to be published in December 2021, added the spokesperson.

How Green is Scotland? is a week-long series for The Herald by The Ferret, an award-winning investigative journalism platform in Scotland. It is an editorially independent, not for profit co-operative run by its journalists and members.

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