© 2019, The Author(s). Dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations and water colour are increasing in many inland waters across northern Europe and northeastern North America. This inland-water “browning” has profound physical, chemical and biological repercussions for aquatic ecosystems affecting water quality, biological community structures and aquatic productivity. Potential drivers of this “browning” trend are complex and include reductions in atmospheric acid deposition, changes in land use/cover, increased nitrogen deposition and climate change. However, because of the overlapping impacts of these stressors, their relative contributions to DOC dynamics remain unclear, and without appropriate long-term monitoring data, it has not been possible to determine whether the ongoing “browning” is unprecedented or simply a “re-browning” to pre-industrial DOC levels. Here, we demonstrate the long-term impacts of acid deposition and climate change on lake-water DOC concentrations in low and high acid-deposition areas using infrared spectroscopic techniques on ~200-year-long lake-sediment records from central Canada. We show that acid deposition suppressed naturally higher DOC concentrations during the 20th century, but that a “re-browning” of lakes is now occurring with emissions reductions in formerly high deposition areas. In contrast, in low deposition areas, climate change is forcing lakes towards new ecological states, as lake-water DOC concentrations now often exceed pre-industrial levels.