AN area of the Highlands has been placed under the highest level of water scarcity alert as dry weather continues.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) said the area around Loch Maree is at “significant risk” as water levels drop.

It said it is “extremely concerning” the risk of water scarcity has reached a significant level so early in the summer.

The environmental watchdog also warned water scarcity in Scotland is “expected to escalate quickly” over the coming weeks due to the lack of rain and high temperatures.

Loch Ness, also in the Highlands, and Loch Esk, in Dumfriesshire, are facing “moderate scarcity”, Sepa said.

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Other areas – Orkney, Ythan, Don, Kintyre, Firth of Clyde, Loch Fyne, and the River Add – are showing “early warning” signs of water shortage.

Nathan Critchlow-Watton, Sepa’s head of water and planning, said: “For the risk of water scarcity to have reached significant this early in the summer is extremely concerning and leaves no doubt that the next few months are going to be very challenging for all those who rely on the water environment to run their business.

“While water levels are critical in this part of the Highlands, we can see other areas of Scotland are on the same trajectory and it’s vital that businesses take steps now to maximise the resource available and prevent further environmental harm.”

Sepa confirmed 37 areas of Scotland are at alert level, and it urged businesses which extract water to put their water scarcity plans into action to reduce pressure on the environment and preserve their own supply.

It has issued 23 abstraction licences in the Loch Maree area, 22 of which are for hydropower generation.

Sepa confirmed these businesses have “low flow protection” set in their permits, which means operators stop abstracting water and sometimes release it back into the loch it was taken from.

It advised businesses to “manage water wisely” and check equipment is in apt condition and not leaking.

Where possible, businesses should also abstract water more sparingly, Sepa added.

Sarah Cowie, environmental resources policy manager at the National Farmers Union (NFU) Scotland, said: “Water is a vital resource for the agricultural sector as we cannot produce food without a consistent and plentiful water supply.

“Last year, Sepa suspended abstraction licences for some growers for the first time and the current prolonged period of dry weather across the country means all farmers and growers must think about water use on farm now and plan ahead for the coming summer season.

“Our horticulture working group met with Sepa this week to discuss a partnership approach between growers and Sepa on water resource management.”

The Met Office confirmed it has been the driest spring in the north of Scotland since 2018.

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On Thursday, First Minister Humza Yousaf urged consumers and businesses alike to follow Sepa and Scottish Water’s guidance on the water shortage.

He added: “The Scottish Government has reopened the emergency scheme to provide bottled water to any homes on private water supplies that need it. Householders should contact their local council if required.

“Businesses extracting water directly from the environment are also being urged to put their water scarcity plans into action now to reduce pressure on the environment.

“The Scottish Government and partners are monitoring the situation closely and considering appropriate measures to mitigate potential future impacts.”