The management of the 137-miles across the country presents the organisation in charge of looking after the network of waters with a number of challenges – as well as unique environmental opportunities.
Scottish Canals has now launched a new Environment Strategy which sets out how they will continue to deliver benefits during the next 10 years and beyond – while enhancing its financial sustainability.
The diverse range of the organisation’s work means it is potentially subject to more than 130 pieces of environmental legislation which apply not only to the canals and their towpaths, but also the 3,180 fixed assets it manages on the network.
This includes 251 bridges, 212 buildings, 256 locks, The Falkirk Wheel and 19 water supply reservoirs in locations across Scotland.
The reservoirs cover an area equivalent to 7,494 football pitches and supply the canals with the 332 million litres of water which can flow through them each day.
The canal system is inherently energy efficient with 95 per cent of its water supply being gravity fed.
Scottish Canals takes more than 10,500 measurements of water flows and levels each year to ensure the network operates smoothly and safely for the range of activities undertaken by the 22 million people who visit the canals annually.
The strategy has been developed in partnership with organisations including the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Fit for the Future Network, National Trust for Wales, Historic Environment Scotland and Resource Efficient Scotland.
The comprehensive strategy will play a key role as the organisation looks to achieve its goal of having canals act as catalysts for sustainable development in communities across Scotland.
It assesses Scottish Canals’ current performance in 10 key environmental areas and identifies ways in which existing achievements can be built on during the next decade.
The document is designed to provide Scottish Canals with a blueprint for responding to emerging environmental challenges while also identifying environmentally friendly ways, such as reducing electricity usage, to minimise costs.
Minister for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform Aileen McLeod said: “Scotland’s natural environment is vitally important, and this should be recognised, particularly during a time when climate change is such a concern. There are challenges that need to be faced head on, and I congratulate Scottish Canals in taking the initiative to develop this strategy for the next year 10 years and beyond.”
Richard Millar, Director of Heritage, Enterprise and Sustainability at Scottish Canals, said: “Scottish Canals is the guardian of a unique and precious blue and green corridor which is home to an incredible diversity of fauna and flora. History has ensured that these waterways are at the heart of many communities and this presents numerous opportunities as a stimulus for change now and in the future.
“We recognise how important these environmental assets are to our staff, customers and partners so we were keen to introduce a document which outlines our current and ongoing commitment to environmental management.
“Many of the measures identified in the strategy will result in cost reductions for us, and some will have a positive role to play in increased revenue generation too.
“Climate change is happening and the nature of our network means it will be particularly exposed to extreme weather events. However, we also have an important role to play in helping to mitigate the impact of climate change and our new Environment Strategy will support us in doing that.
“We already incorporate environmental considerations into all the activity we do and have a number of new and exciting projects planned.
“This includes increasing the role we have to play in surface water management in the communities located along our network. By increasing the volume of clean surface water run-off our canals accept from new developments we will be able to reduce the pressure on the existing waste water and sewerage infrastructure.”
Scottish Canals manages more than 80 different types of waste but recycles more than 90 per cent of this and is already close to meeting the Scottish Government’s target of having less than 5% of waste go to landfill.
The organisation does face a challenge from fly-tippers, with almost 50 tonnes of rubbish illegally dumped along its network in 2013/14, but the Environment Strategy includes measures for combatting this.
David Pirie, Executive Director at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), said: “Scotland’s canals are an important and valued part of our environmental heritage, therefore as custodians of the canal network, it’s great to see Scottish Canals producing an ambitious and action focussed environmental strategy.
“It’s only by safeguarding and improving the environment that we can create a healthier and more sustainable Scotland and it’s encouraging to see that this new strategy recognises the importance of maintaining a balance between human activity and protection of the often fragile ecosystems which surround us.”
Professor Des Thompson, Principal Adviser on Biodiversity with Scottish Natural Heritage, said: “Well done to Scottish Canals for producing this strategy. Our canals and other water bodies have a special connection with many communities.
“Abounding in wildlife and widely accessible they are highly sensitive to increased water flow rates, rising water levels and the spread of invasive non-native species – all influenced by climate change.
“That is why we are so fortunate to have this strategy to robustly meet the challenges ahead.”
Ewan Hyslop, Head of Sustainability for Historic Environment Scotland, said: “Our organisations share much common ground, including that Scottish Canals is responsible for looking after some of the country’s most interesting, important, and diverse built heritage.
“So when they came to us, as leaders on climate change in our sector, we were more than happy to provide advice on the subject and share from our own climate change experience.
“Ultimately it is very encouraging to see Scottish Canals joining with other public bodies to set out a long term environment strategy like this, and I hope others will be encouraged to follow suit.”