Shona McConnell is on a mission to reinvigorate Scotland’s relationship with its water environment.

It can be easy to romanticise our rivers and lochs and think of them as something that only happen in the countryside, faraway from towns and cities. The reality, however, is that many of the water systems that surround us in our daily lives are frequently fenced in, hidden away behind walls, embankments or concreted over by culverts.

“You see that in lots of places, especially in cities,” says Shona. “Places where you can hear the river, you know it’s there somehow, but you can’t see it. And I think that’s such a shame. It can be so therapeutic walking by or looking at a healthy water environment, and to cut it off like that and sever our connection with it is just wrong.”

Shona is part of our river basin management team, responsible for co-ordinating the production of plans to “protect and improve” Scotland’s water environment. The team was established in response to the European Water Framework Directive, an ambitious piece of legislation aimed at transforming the way we manage our water, moving us away from a sole focus on pollution to consideration of the wider impacts on our water ecosystems. These impacts can be caused by a lack of water, invasive non-native species and physical changes such as straightened channels, reinforced banks and embankments which have disconnected our rivers from their floodplains.

As Shona explains, “The majority of Scotland’s water environment is already in a really good condition, but improvements are still required. The river basin management plans are essentially our way of getting the water environment into a good condition. They cover everything, from high level management, to what’s required on a particular water body.”

To make the management of our water environment easier, Scotland is separated into two river basin districts. All waters that drain to the Solway and Tweed estuaries form the Solway-Tweed river basin, which is managed by SEPA and the Environment Agency in England as a separate cross-border district. The waters in the rest of the country, including the Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, are part of the Scotland district.

The river basin management team works with organisations, water managers and water users across Scotland. From councillors to ministers, from agency chiefs to scientists in the field, regardless of who they are talking to, the team’s key message is that the plans are for the benefit of everyone. “It’s Scotland’s water environment; it’s Scotland’s plan,” Shona explains. “SEPA has a statutory role in coordinating the production of river basin plans, but lots of others influence what goes into it, internally and externally.”

There are a number of organisations such as Scottish Water, Scottish Natural Heritage, as well as local authorities, transport and roads agencies, who are obliged to carry out their existing duties in line with the river basin management plans. For example, when a local authority is considering an application for a new development, it needs to reflect river basin planning objectives before they give consent.

“Effective land use planning is a particularly important way of improving our water environment,” says Shona. “There are many examples across Scotland, but in my patch a particularly good example is the Bog Burn in Bathgate. Here, SEPA highlighted the potential for removing a 1.2 km culvert when a large brownfield site came forward for re-development. West Lothian Council then supported that and made it a requirement of the planning consent. A small contribution from multiple developers led to a big environmental improvement.”

Now, high-value housing overlooks the burn. “The Glasgow-Edinburgh cycle path runs parallel with it and the recreational amenity value of the site for local residents is huge – dog walkers, kids learning to ride bikes, cyclists and runners. It’s a fantastic example of how river restoration can deliver multiple benefits as well as reconnecting people with their local river.”

Promoting the multiple benefits associated with a healthy water environment is a principal river basin planning strategy. As part of the pilot catchment project, SEPA is working with local landowners and land managers on a voluntary basis to demonstrate how improvements to river habitats can be combined with measures that will help to reduce flood risk, while also ensuring proper consideration of existing land use. Linking improvements with other benefits such as natural flood management, recreation, health and wellbeing and biodiversity will be a central feature of the second river basin management plans.

Raising general awareness and understanding of what a healthy water environment looks like is of crucial importance. But in a world already squeezed by economic constraints, environmental benefits are not always an easy sell to cash-strapped councils and developers with an eye on the bottom line. “We downplay our regulatory role a lot. We try to relate the multiple benefits that are associated with a healthy water environment – such as improved public health and well-being – to wider policy objectives at national and local authority level.”

The public can take some convincing too. “People traditionally have very fixed ideas about what a healthy river should look like,” says Shona. If it looks neat and tidy then people often assume it is high quality, just as long as the water’s clear, there’s no litter, no logs, and as long as it’s not flooding. They don’t see that physical changes such as culverts, concrete beds and banks and weirs are a problem.” An old Victorian-era weir may give the appearance of a pretty waterfall, but it could be preventing salmon from getting up the river. A fallen tree may make the river look less tidy, but it will add to the river’s complexity, providing shelter and nutrients for a range of species, increasing vital biodiversity.

There’s much about a healthy water environment that’s easily missed by the untrained eye – SEPA’s land unit and ecologists have been demonstrating this to farmers in catchments where tackling diffuse pollution is a priority. “They’ve had the farmers doing ecology kick samples and looking at what species are coming out. That way they farmers can see with their own eyes the complete lack of diversity in an impacted burn compared to a healthy burn.”

“But that’s just a few farmers in one small catchment – now we’ve just got to persuade everyone else.”