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For more information, contact:
Kristi Minahan
More Information

For details on how criteria for toxic substances are derived, see Procedures for Deriving Wisconsin's Numeric Surface Water Criteria [PDF].

Water quality criteria Wisconsin water quality standards

The Clean Water Act requires states to adopt water quality standards to protect aquatic life, wildlife, 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: statements that describe the desired water quality goal.
  • Numeric criteria: 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 which 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.

Wisconsin's Water Quality Criteria exlained.

Public (Human) Health & Welfare

  • 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


  • 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


  • 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 organism 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
Last revised: Monday January 13 2020