Acidification of lakes and rivers is still an environmental concern despite reduced emissions of acidifying compounds. We analysed trends in surface water chemistry of 173 acid-sensitive sites from 12 regions in Europe and North America. In 11 of 12 regions, non-marine sulphate ( SO 4 *) declined significantly between 1990 and 2008 (-15 to -59%). In contrast, regional and temporal trends in nitrate were smaller and less uniform. In 11 of 12 regions, chemical recovery was demonstrated in the form of positive trends in pH and/or alkalinity and/or acid neutralising capacity (ANC). The positive trends in these indicators of chemical recovery were regionally and temporally less distinct than the decline in SO 4 * and tended to flatten after 1999. From an ecological perspective, the chemical quality of surface waters in acid-sensitive areas in these regions has clearly improved as a consequence of emission abatement strategies, paving the way for some biological recovery. © Springer International Publishing 2014.