What are Water Quality Standards?

Water Quality Standards (WQS) are state, territorial, authorized tribal, or federal law provisions approved by the EPA describing the desired condition of a body of water and the methods by which that condition will be achieved. To protect the health of residents and aquatic life, states, territories, and tribes develop WQS.

Water Quality Standards have 3 main components

Each state, territory, and tribe has its own legal and administrative procedures for adopting WQS. Usually, standards are developed using a workgroup process or informal public meetings and are ultimately proposed for public comment. States, territories, and tribes must adopt water quality criteria with enough coverage and adequate stringency to protect designated uses. In developing criteria to protect the designated use, they may:

  • adopt EPA-recommended criteria
  • adopt unique criteria to reflect site-specific conditions
  • use other scientifically defensible methods to develop their own criteria

The EPA must review and approve each submission from a state, territory, or tribe. The proposed water quality standards must be approved by the EPA before they are used as the basis for actions under the Clean Water Act, such as establishing water quality based effluent limitations. If the EPA determines that the submission meets the Clean Water Act requirements, the standards become applicable. The state, territory, or authorized tribe is required to periodically review its approach to water quality protection at least once every three years.

Water quality standards have three core components, specifically:

  • designated uses: the WQS require states, territories, and authorized tribes to specify goals for how each water body is used, and typical designated uses include protection and propagation of fish and wildlife, recreation, public drinking water supply, and industrial, agricultural, navigational, and other purposes
  • criteria: states, territories, and tribes adopt WQS to protect the water body, and water quality criteria can be numeric (such as the maximum pollutant concentration levels permitted in a water body) or narrative (such as a criterion describing the desired conditions of a water body being "free from" certain negative conditions)
  • antidegradation requirements: one of the primary objectives of the Clean Water Act is to "maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation's waters," and antidegradation requirements offer a framework for maintaining water quality that has already been achieved

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