Abstract Forested catchments are generally assumed to provide higher quality water in opposition to agricultural and urban catchments. However, this should be tested in various ecological contexts and through the study of multiple variables describing water quality. Indeed, interactions between ecological variables, multiple land use and land cover (LULC) types, and water quality variables render the relationship between forest cover and water quality highly complex. Furthermore, the question of the scale at which land use within stream catchments most influences stream water quality and ecosystem health remains only partially answered. This paper quantifies, at the regional scale and across five natural ecoregions of Wallonia (Belgium), the forest cover effect on biological water quality indices (based on diatoms and macroinvertebrates) at the riparian and catchment scales. Main results show that forest cover – considered alone – explains around one third of the biological water quality at the regional scale and from 15 to 70% depending on the ecoregion studied. Forest cover is systematically positively correlated with higher biological water quality. When removing spatial, local morphological variations, or population density effect, forest cover still accounts for over 10% of the total biological water quality variation. Partitioning variance shows that physico-chemical water quality is one of the main drivers of biological water quality and that anthropogenic pressures often explain an important part of it (shared or not with forest cover). The proportion of forest cover in each catchment at the regional scale and across all ecoregions but the Loam region is more positively correlated with high water quality than when considering the proportion of forest cover in the riparian zones only. This suggests that catchment-wide impacts and a fortiori catchment-wide protection measures are the main drivers of river ecological water quality. However, distinctive results from the agricultural and highly human impacted Loam region show that riparian forests are positively linked to water quality and should therefore be preserved.