Water Quality Standards for Wetlands
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On this Page:
- Goals and Benefits
- Program Building Activities Menu
Water quality standards are the foundation of the water quality-based pollution control program mandated by the Clean Water Act (CWA). They define the goals for a water body by designating its highest attainable uses, setting criteria that reflect the current and evolving body of scientific information to protect those uses, and establishing provisions to protect water bodies from further degradation. Federal regulations (40 CFR part 230.3) implementing the CWA include wetlands as "waters of the U.S." and therefore require water quality standards. Water quality standards developed specifically for wetlands help ensure that the provisions of the Clean Water Act, which apply to all surface waters, are consistently applied to wetlands; they also provide a more relevant scientific basis for applying these provisions. Water quality standards (WQS) regulations at 40 CFR Parts 131 and 132 provide specific requirements for development of state and tribal standards including specifying appropriate water uses to be achieved and protected, providing appropriate criteria to support those uses, and applying anti-degradation policy to all waters, including wetlands. The regulation also provides states and tribes with the flexibility to adopt sub-categories of uses and associated criteria to allow for differentiation between types of wetlands, their expected uses, functions and condition.
Historically, wetlands-specific standards have been underutilized by states and tribes as a means of protecting the resource, although a number of states apply their narrative surface water quality standards to wetlands. If a state or tribe fails to adopt standards specific to wetlands, its water quality standards, which typically apply to "all waters of the State" by default, apply to wetlands as well. Often these default standards are not relevant to a wetland, e.g., a dissolved oxygen criterion that is inappropriately high for wetland environments. The most adaptive surface water standard is one that relies on narrative criteria rather than numeric criteria due to the high variability in wetlands particularly when compared with flowing waters.
Developing defensible water quality standards for wetlands is a data intensive effort and is dependent on a successful wetland monitoring and assessment program. Standards can be derived and supported using measurements of wetland function or condition. Due to the unique characteristics of wetlands relative to flowing surface waters, water quality standards for wetlands may differ from traditional standards, e.g., with potentially less emphasis on water chemistry parameters and more emphasis on diversity of vegetation or macroinvertebrate communities. Generally, a suite of measures will be required for wetland WQS to protect the full range of wetland functions and/or ecological condition. As with water quality criteria for other surface waters, criteria for wetlands can be narrative or numeric. Wetland standards may also differ from conventional standards by utilizing additional parts of State statutes and regulations that do not apply to instream water quality.
The EPA 1990 guidance on WQS for wetlands states five key steps for developing water quality standards for wetlands: 1) define wetlands as "state waters"; (2) designate uses that protect the structure and function of wetlands; (3) adopt narrative criteria and appropriate numeric criteria in the standards to protect the designated uses; (4) adopt narrative biological criteria in the standards; and (5) extend the antidegradation policy and implementation methods. Like other water quality standards, wetlands-specific WQS are submitted to EPA for approval during the triennial review process. These steps form the basis for many of the program development actions in the table below.
Goals and Benefits
WQS for wetlands can provide a more rigorous and appropriate foundation for protecting and enhancing state or tribal wetland resources. Wetland WQS can provide the basis for actions leading to an "overall increase" in wetland function and condition, one of EPA's national wetland goals. They also provide the scientific basis for a variety of actions to protect and restore wetlands, such as:
- Permitting – Standards provide a clear basis for making water quality based permitting decisions under CWA Sections 402 and 404 and other state and tribal programs;
- Water quality certification – Standards are the basis for states and tribes to approve, condition, or deny certifications under CWA Section 401 programs. Wetlands-specific WQS provide a stronger basis for 401 certifications and conditions;
- Monitoring, Assessment and Reporting – Standards provide a benchmark against which monitoring data can be used to assess and report on wetlands function and/or condition (i.e.,303(d)305(b) integrated reports;
- Restoration and Protection – States and tribes can use standards as a basis for guiding restoration and protection efforts and gauging their effectiveness.
In addition, wetlands WQS provide the basis for decisions in other programs that affect wetlands such as the Total Maximum Daily Loads and nonpoint source pollution control programs. States and tribes can successfully adopt and apply WQS for wetlands by pursuing the following objectives:
- Ensure that wetlands are treated as waters within state and tribal water quality programs
- Develop wetland-specific water quality standards; and
- Incorporate wetland-specific water quality standards into agency decision-making.
Program Building Activities Menu
The following actions and measures of progress provide more specific guidance for states and tribes interested in developing, adopting, and incorporating water quality standards into their wetlands programs.
Objective 1: Ensure that wetlands are treated as waters within state and tribal water quality programs
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Objective 2: Develop wetland-specific water quality standards
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Objective 3: Incorporate wetland-specific water quality standards into agency decision-making
|Actions||Menu of Activities|
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The Program Activities Menu above provides a suite of actions for developing wetland-specific water quality standards. The references below have been compiled in an effort to offer additional resources to states and tribes interested in developing or improving wetland-specific water quality standards. This list is not intended to promote any one technical approach or pathway over another but rather to serve as a source of both current and historic information that may be considered by states and tribes along with other relevant information. While some of these materials are dated, they can still offer helpful background or principles for consideration.
- Wetland-specific Water Quality Standards Information
- Water Quality Standards for Wetlands: National Guidance (July 1990 and Appendix D of the Water Quality Standards Handbook: Second Edition, August 1994)
This document provides program guidance to States on how to apply water quality standards (WQS) to wetlands. This guidance reflects the level of achievement EPA expected States to accomplish by the end of FY 1993. Phase 1 activities presented in this guidance include the development of WQS elements for wetlands based upon existing information and science. Phase 2 involves the further refinement of these basic elements using new science and program developments.
- Nutrient Criteria Technical Guidance Manual: Wetlands (June 2008)
This document describes elements of wetland nutrient criteria development including: classification of wetlands, monitoring program sampling design, and three methods for developing nutrient criteria. These methods are: using reference systems, refining classification systems using models and/or examining system biological attributes, and using or modifying published nutrient and vegetation, algal, and soil relationships as criteria. It focuses on developing numeric criteria for wetland systems in an ecoregion.
- An Approach for Evaluating Numeric Water Quality Criteria for Wetlands Protection (PDF) (51 pp, 2.8MB) (July 1991 and Appendix E of the Water Quality Standards Handbook: Second Edition, August 1994)
This report provides an overview of the need for standards and criteria for wetlands and a description of the national numeric aquatic life criteria. It provides a possible approach for detecting wetland types that might not be protected by direct application of national numeric criteria and for making modifications based on site-specific guidelines.
- Questions and Answers on Antidegradation (PDF) (17 pp, 1.3MB) (August 1985 and Appendix G of the Water Quality Standards Handbook: Second Edition, August 1994)
This document provides guidance on the antidegradation policy component of water quality standards and its application. The document begins with the text of the policy as stated in the water quality standards regulation, 40 CFR 131.12 (40 FR 51400, November 8, 1983), the portion of the Preamble discussing the antidegradation policy, and the response to comments generated during the public comment period on the regulation. The document then uses a question-and-answer format to present information about the origin of the policy, the meaning of various terms, and its application in both general terms and in specific examples. Question #13 addresses the application of antidegradation policy in the case of wetland fill permits under Clean Water Action Section 404.
- Water Quality Standards Handbook: Second Edition (August 1994)
Provides guidance issued in support of the Water Quality Standards Regulation (40 CFR 131, as amended).
- Water Quality Standards Academy
To support water quality standards development, EPA offers the Water Quality Standards Academy which presents classroom-based and online courses, along with occasional satellite broadcasts. Online training models and information on classroom courses can be accessed at this website.
- Clean Water Act Section 401 Water Quality Certification: A Water Quality Protection Tool for States and Tribes (PDF) (49 pp, 447.4K)(Interim Draft, April 2010)
This document includes a discussion of water quality standards as a basis for 401 certification decisions. It highlights wetland-specific water quality standards as way to ensure comprehensive consideration of wetlands in the 401 certification process (see p. 19).
- Impacts on Quality of Inland Wetlands of the United States: A Survey of Indicators, Techniques, and Applications of Community Level Biomonitoring Data (Excerpts from Report #EPA/600/3-90/073, now out of print)
This report describes how (a) existing resource data might be applied in the designation of "uses" for wetlands, (b) ambient biological criteria for wetlands might be developed or modified, and (c) wetlands might be periodically sampled (and data interpreted) to estimate their relative ecological condition, compliance with biological criteria, or need for restoration. Because of the lack of appropriate comparative studies of wetlands, the report does not provide biocriteria for wetlands, evaluate or prioritize potential indicators of wetland condition, nor endorse specific techniques for wetland biomonitoring and data analysis. Its intended use is mainly as a technical source document for future design, testing, and reporting of indicators.
- EPA's Wetlands Monitoring and Assessment Homepage
A necessary foundation for development of wetland-specific water quality standards is an understanding of existing wetland types and characterization of desired quality/condition. This is usually achieved through wetlands monitoring and assessment.
- Methods for Evaluating Wetland Condition (March 2002 – December 2008)
These modules are a starting point to help states and tribes establish biological and nutrient water quality criteria specifically refined for wetlands. They provide information that will help states and tribes develop biological assessment methods to evaluate both the overall ecological condition of wetlands and nutrient enrichment.
This page provides links to non-EPA websites that provide additional information about water quality standards. You will leave the EPA.gov domain and enter another page with more information. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of information on that non-EPA page. Providing links to a non-EPA website is not an endorsement of the other site or the information it contains by EPA or any of its employees. Also, be aware that the privacy protection provided on the EPA.gov domain (see Privacy and Security Notice) may not be available at the external link.
- Information Supporting Development of Water Quality Standards for Wetlands by States and Tribes
- Association of State Wetland Managers
- Wetland Water Quality Standards for States (PDF) (100 pp, 2.2MB) (2012)
This report was prepared by the Association of State Wetland Managers as part of a broader project to help states adopt water quality standards for wetland ecosystems. It addresses selected issues with regard to the formulation and adoption of such standards. It provides the states with some examples of draft narrative standards in Appendices A and B.
- Water Quality Standards for Wetlands webpage
The Association of State Wetland Managers maintains this webpage to provide information related to wetlands and water quality as well as to provide resources for states and tribes that are preparing for adoption of water quality standards for wetlands.
- Environmental Law Institute
- State Wetland Program Evaluations: Phases I – IV (2005-2007)
This set of reports details findings of a multi-phase study designed to describe and analyze seven components of state wetland programs including water quality standards. Seven states with wetland-specific elements to their water quality standards are identified and a short overview of each program is provided.
- State Wetland Protection: Status, Trends, and Model Approaches (March 2008)
Section III provides a summary of states with wetland-specific water quality standards including a table which breaks out which elements (designated uses, criteria, and/or antidegradation) those states have developed.
- State of Colorado
- Basic Standards Applicable to Surface Waters of the State
Colorado's code of regulations describing basic standards applicable to surface waters of the state including those specific to "surface waters in wetlands" (see section 1(b)).
- Process for Assigning Standards and Granting, Extending, or Removing Temporary Modifications
Colorado's code of regulations describing the process for assigning standards, including "standards for surface waters in wetlands" (see section 1(b)(iv)), as well as for granting, extending, or removing modifications to existing numeric standards.
- State of Iowa
- Water Quality Standards (PDF) (29 pp, 143.3K)
Iowa's water quality standards including standards specific to class "B(LW)" waters; lakes and wetlands (see section 61.3(3)(b)).
- State of Minnesota
- Wetland Standards and Mitigation
Minnesota's administrative rules on wetland standards and mitigation.
- Specific Water Quality Standards for Class 2 Waters of the State; Aquatic Life and Recreation
Minnesota's administrative rules for Class 2 waters (see Subpart 6 for Class "2D" waters; wetlands).
- Nondegradation for All Waters
Minnesota's administrative rules to protect all waters from significant degradation from point and nonpoint sources and wetland alterations and to maintain existing water uses and aquatic and wetland habitats.
- State of Nebraska
- Water Quality Standards for Wetlands (PDF) (14 pp, 47.5K)
Nebraska's administrative code on water quality standards for wetlands.
- State of North Carolina
- Classifications and Water Quality Standards Applicable to Surface Waters and Wetlands (PDF) (133 pp, 960.6K)
North Carolina's water quality standards for surface waters and wetlands.
- State of Ohio
- Wetland Narrative Criteria (PDF) (2 pp, 10K)
Ohio's administrative code describing narrative criteria that apply to wetlands.
- Chemical Criteria for Waste Water Discharges to Wetlands (PDF) (1 pg, 8.3K)
Ohio's administrative code describing numeric chemical criteria for waste water discharges to wetlands.
- Wetland Antidegradation (PDF) (15 pp, 656.4K)
Ohio's administrative code describing its wetland antidegradation policy.
- State of Washington
- Water Quality Guidelines for Wetlands: Using the Surface Water Quality Standards for Activities Involving Wetlands (April 1996)
This guidance document describes Washington's surface water quality standards and how the standards apply to wetlands. It describes how a water quality decision is reached regarding wetlands using the Antidegradation Decision-Making Process (including the role of wetland mitigation).
- State of Wisconsin
- Water Quality Standards for Wetlands (PDF) (4 pp, 31.3K)
Wisconsin's administrative code describing water quality standards for wetlands.