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Water Quality Criteria

The Clean Water Act requires states to adopt water quality standards to protect aquatic life, wildlife and recreation. Water quality standards consist of three components: antidegradation, designated uses and water quality criteria. Water quality criteria represent the quality of water that supports a particular designated use.

Water quality criteria are either narrative or numeric

Narrative criteria are statements that describe the desired water quality goal.

Numeric criteria are benchmarks set at a level of a pollutant that is protective of the designated use.

Wisconsin's narrative criteria apply to Wisconsin's lakes, rivers and streams. These criteria address pollutants such as:

  • floating or submerged debris, oil, scum or other material;
  • substances that cause objectionable deposits on the shore or in the bed of a body of water;
  • substances that produce color, odor, taste or unsightliness;
  • substances in amounts which are toxic or harmful to humans; and
  • substances in amounts that are harmful to animal, plant or aquatic life.

Types of criteria for Wisconsin's lakes, rivers and streams

Wisconsin's numeric criteria are designed to protect a particular use for a given waterbody.

Types of criteria for Wisconsin's lakes, rivers and streams

Public health and welfare criteria

  • Toxics: Protect people from cancer or other effects caused by long-term exposure to eating contaminated fish or drinking contaminated water.
  • Temperature: Protect people from being scalded
  • Taste & odor: Limit objectionable tastes or odors of water and fish

Recreation criteria

  • Bacteria: Protect people from illness caused by exposure to bacteria from contamination by human waste
  • Phosphorus: Protect recreation by reducing the frequency of algal blooms

Wildlife criteria

  • Toxics: Protect fishing eating animals from effects caused by long-term exposure to eating contaminated fish and drinking contaminated water

Aquatic life criteria

  • Toxics: Protect aquatic organisms from adverse effects caused by short and long term exposure to contaminated water
  • pH: Protect aquatic organisms from changes in pH
  • Temperature: Protect aquatic organisms from effects caused by short- and long-term exposure to high temperatures.
  • Dissolved oxygen: Protect aquatic organisms from changes in dissolved oxygen concentrations
  • Phosphorous: Protect aquatic organisms from the effects of nutrients and algae on habitat

Links to criteria in Wis. Admin. Code

  • NR 102 contains criteria for phosphorus, dissolved oxygen, pH, bacteria and temperature. It also contains the narrative criteria described above.
  • NR 103 contains water quality standards for wetlands.
  • NR 104 contains a list of waterbodies designated as "limited" and certain water quality standards that apply to those waters (additional standards applying to “limited” waters are contained in NR 102 and 105).
  • NR 105 contains criteria for a wide variety of toxic substances.