SEPA working with Scottish businesses to prepare for water scarcity this summer

  02 May 2023
A repeat of the water shortages faced by businesses last year can't be ruled out as parts of Scotland record low river levels and dry ground conditions in SEPA's first water scarcity report.

Businesses in Scotland abstracting water from the environment are being urged to plan for possible shortages this summer, with some parts of the country already recording low river levels and dry ground conditions.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has published the first water scarcity report of 2023, which shows parts of western, central and northern Scotland have reached Early Warning level for water scarcity.

It follows mixed conditions over the last six months, with winter drier than average across most of the country, in contrast to a mostly wet autumn. A particularly dry February has also contributed to lower than normal river flows and groundwater levels for this time of year.

Nathan Critchlow-Watton, Head of Water and Planning at SEPA, said:

“Given the mixed weather we’ve experienced in autumn and winter, and the fact that some parts are already at Early Warning level, what happens next will shape the risk of water scarcity this summer. We can’t rule out a repeat of the water shortages businesses experienced last year.

“It’s vital that water abstractors licensed by SEPA have a plan to deal with water scarcity and we can help by providing advice and guidance on ways to reduce pressure on the water environment. Taking the right steps now will lower the likelihood of resources reaching a critical level again this summer and SEPA having to suspend licences to protect the water environment.”


The latest IPCC report on climate change, published in March 2023, is clear that the window of opportunity to secure a sustainable future is rapidly closing and meaningful action is needed in all corners of the world.

Scotland is no exception. Although a country famed worldwide for its natural water environment and wet weather, the reality is water is not an infinite resource here. Climate change is bringing hotter, drier summers and is forcing the nation to change its relationship with water.

Significant impacts from water scarcity were apparent during 2022, particularly in the east of the country. Groundwater levels in the region were their lowest since records began in 2009 and there was below average rainfall in eight out of the twelve months.

In August and September 2022, SEPA took steps to protect the environment from the effects of prolonged dry weather by imposing suspensions on 175 water abstraction licences in four catchment areas. This required support and compliance from businesses, predominantly within the agriculture sector, around the rivers Eden, Tyne, Tweed and Ythan. Abstractors were required to stop taking water from these areas or reduce volumes for a brief period to allow levels to recover.

Environmental Resources Policy Manager at NFUS, Sarah Cowie, said:

“Water is a vital resource for the agricultural sector, we cannot produce food without a consistent and plentiful water supply. Last year, SEPA suspended abstraction licences for some growers for the first time. This stark response to a prolonged period of dry weather highlights the impacts of a changing climate and the pressures it can bring on farm businesses. 

“NFUS encourages all farmers and growers to think about water use on farm as early as possible, to plan for the coming summer season. This will ensure businesses can remain resilient at all times of the year.”


Thriving, successful and sustainable Scottish businesses will be those that recognise the link between environmental and economic prosperity. Part of that is the critical role of managing our water resources and SEPA supports organisations to do this in sectors such as agriculture, aquaculture, hydropower, golf, and whisky production.

Pulteney in Wick is one of Scotland’s most northerly mainland whisky distilleries and relies solely on Loch Hempriggs to supply its water for production of its single malt whisky, Old Pulteney. In Summer 2021, operators could see water levels at the loch were perilously low. Instead of waiting for regulatory action, the distillery worked with SEPA and followed advice on managing the resource. Production was voluntarily halted, and personnel were instead deployed to other maintenance tasks to ensure lost production days were made up efficiently once water supplies increased again.  

International Beverage Group Distilleries Manager, Sean Priestley, said:

“We’re acutely aware of the real risk of water scarcity, particularly in an area like Caithness where water is constrained. We made a decision not to shy away from this and to instead do the right thing for the environment, no matter how challenging this might be for our business.

“Loch Hempriggs is a vital natural resource, not one that we can simply replace or use technology to fix. It needs careful management, time and of course plenty of rain to sustain it. Responsibility for its stewardship falls to us.”

As well as implementing current water scarcity plans, the distillery is also focusing on innovation to find more sustainable ways of distilling whisky. The team has been conducting a number of high gravity mashing trials to establish the best possible production process, minimising water usage while still maintaining the character of the Old Pulteney spirit. High gravity mashing has proven successful at other International Beverage distilleries in Scotland and will have a positive impact on water usage at Pulteney once implemented.


All water abstractors should be aware of the potential risk of water scarcity this summer, monitor their water use, and plan ahead for a range of weather conditions. 

Businesses should review available options to increase their resilience and reduce the impacts of water scarcity.  For example, land managers could consider investing in equipment and infrastructure to improve water-use efficiency such as an irrigation lagoon. 

Those collecting water from the same source are urged to work together with neighbours and stagger abstractions to make best use of available water.

Further advice and support is available at




  • An image is available to download from SEPA’s media centre. No registration is needed to access the file. (On the left: Nathan Critchlow-Watton, Head of Water and Planning at SEPA. On the right: Sean Priestley, International Beverage Group Distilleries Manager)
  • The National Water Scarcity Plan explains how water resources will be managed prior to and during periods of prolonged dry weather. This is to ensure the correct balance is struck between protecting the environment and providing resource for human and economic activity.
  • During water scarcity conditions, SEPA publishes a weekly report categorising the water situation across Scotland through a five-tiered approach.
  • Information about water scarcity and advice for businesses can be found on SEPA’s website.
  • For more information about Pulteney Distillery and International Beverage, please contact Lorna Burt -, 07792 253 818