A Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources

Georgia Water Quality Standards

The people of the State of Georgia are dependent upon the rivers, streams, lakes, and subsurface waters for public and private water supply, and agricultural, industrial, and recreational uses. The Georgia Water Quality Control Act (WQCA) (O.C.G.A. § 12-5-2) governs the impacts on the water quantity and quality within the State of Georgia.   The Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is charged to establish and maintain the quality and quantity of Georgia’s water resources (O.C.G.A § 12-5-21(b)).   It is Georgia’s policy that water resources be utilized prudently for the maximum benefit of the people, in order to restore and maintain a reasonable degree of  purity in the waters and an adequate water supply, and to require, where necessary, reasonable usage of the State waters and reasonable treatment of sewage, industrial wastes, and other wastes prior to their discharge into the State waters (O.C.G.A. §12-5-21(a)).  Within EPD, the Watershed Protection Branch is responsible for the care of current and future water resource needs.  

The Watershed Protection Branch is authorized to issue permits to regulate the withdrawal, diversion, or impoundment of the surface waters of the State.  The Branch ensures Georgia's public water systems are operating properly to supply safe drinking water to citizens.  The Branch works to control nonpoint sources of pollution, including erosion and sedimentation, and manages storm water discharges. The Watershed Protection Branch issues permits to local governments and industry to discharge treated wastewater and the Branch requires the use of reasonable methods after considering the technical means available for the reduction of pollution and economic factors involved to prevent and control the pollution of the waters of the state (O.C.G.A. 12-5-21(b)).   The Branch also recommends and revises State water quality standards, conducts water quality monitoring, assesses the quality of the State’s waters, and performs water quality and quantity modeling of Georgia's waters.  

As outlined in O.C.G.A. 12-5-23, the Board of Natural Resources establishes rules and regulations to implement and enforce the control and management of water pollution and surface water use to protect the environment and the health of humans.   The rules outline the procedures to be followed when applying for permits, the standards of water purity for State waters specifying the maximum degree of pollution permissible, and the governing water use classifications and water quality standards to protect them.  

The objective of the Federal Clean Water Act (CWA) is to restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters, and to achieve wherever attainable, the goal of providing for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, wildlife, and providing for recreation in and on the water.  This goal is commonly referred to as “fishable swimmable.”  Water quality standards, as administered by 40 CFR Part 131 and Section 303 of the Clean Water Act (CWA), are a key tool used by States to meet these goals and are a fundamental component of watershed management. Water quality standards are the foundation for numerous activities conducted by Georgia EPD including development of Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs), issuance of National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits and assessment of State waters as part of the 305(b)/303(d) listing process.

Water quality standards are made up of three components:

1. Designated uses establish the environmental objective of the waterbody.  There are six designated uses in Georgia, found in Section 4 of Georgia’s Rules and Regulations for Water Quality Control (Chapter 391-3-6-.03), including

(a) Drinking Water Supplies: Those waters approved as a source for public drinking water systems permitted or to be permitted by the Environmental Protection Division. Waters classified for drinking water supplies will also support the fishing use and any other use requiring water of a lower quality.

(b) Recreation:  General recreational activities such as water skiing, boating, and swimming, or for any other use requiring water of a lower quality, such as recreational fishing. These criteria are not to be interpreted as encouraging water contact sports in proximity to sewage or industrial waste discharges regardless of treatment requirements.

(c) Fishing:  Propagation of Fish, Shellfish, Game and Other Aquatic Life; secondary contact recreation in and on the water; or for any other use requiring water of a lower quality.

(d) Wild River: For all waters designated in 391-3-6-.03(13) as "Wild River," there shall be no alteration of natural water quality from any source.

(e) Scenic River: For all waters designated in 391-3-6-.03(13) as "Scenic River," there shall be no alteration of natural water quality from any source.

(f) Coastal Fishing: This classification will be applicable to specific sites when so designated by the Environmental Protection Division. For waters designated as "Coastal Fishing", site specific criteria for dissolved oxygen will be assigned. All other criteria and uses for the fishing use classification will apply for coastal fishing.

2. Numeric and Narrative water quality criteria: Criteria are put in place to protect the designated use. Georgia has general criteria and specific criteria for water use classifications.  General criteria, found in Section 5 of Georgia’s Rules and Regulations for Water Quality Control (Chapter 391-3-6-.03), apply to all waters of the State and include both narrative and numeric criteria.  An example of a narrative criterion is the prohibition of discharging toxic materials in toxic amounts. General numeric criteria have been established to protect both aquatic life and human health, and are for parameters such as metals, pesticides, and organic compounds.  Specific criteria, found in Section 6 of Georgia’s Rules and Regulations for Water Quality Control (Chapter 391-3-6-.03), have been adopted to support the designated uses of waters of the State.  Specific criteria have been established for dissolved oxygen, pH, temperature, and bacteria.  In addition, specific numeric criteria for six lakes (West Point, Walter F. George, Jackson, Lanier, Allatoona, and Carters), found in Section 17 of Georgia’s Rules and Regulations for Water Quality Control (Chapter 391-3-6-.03), have been established.  Numeric criteria have been established for nutrients and chlorophyll a.

3. Antidegradation Policy: States must develop an antidegradation policy, found in Section 2(b) of Georgia’s Rules and Regulations for Water Quality Control (Chapter 391-3-6-.03),  and an implementation method to protect and maintain water quality using a tiered approach. The purpose of the antidegradation policy is to develop a set of procedures to be followed when evaluating activities that may impact the quality of the waters of the State. Antidegradation implementation is an integral component of a comprehensive approach to protecting and enhancing water quality.  Information on Georgia’s antidegradation implementation is given in the Antidegradation Analysis Guidelines, which may prompt new or expanding dischargers to use the Antidegradation Checklist & Form (Industrial), the Antidegradation Checklist & Form (Domestic), &/or the Wasteload Allocation Request form.  Additionally, other helpful documents about permits for both industrial and domestic facilities are provided here.

Georgia’s water quality standards are found in Chapter 391-3-6-.03 of the Rules and Regulations for Water Quality Control. It is important to note that in accordance with Federal Regulation 40 CFR 131.21(c), a State’s water quality standards must be approved by U.S. EPA before they are used to accomplish activities authorized by the Clean Water Act (such as issuing NPDES permits, drafting TMDLs and assessing waters).

Latest U.S. EPA approved version of Georgia’s water quality standards

Adopted by the Board of Natural Resources August 26, 2015

Approved by US EPA August 16, 2016

Georgia’s water quality standards can also be found on the Secretary of State’s website. While the water quality standards contained on the Secretary of State’s website have been adopted by the Georgia Board of Natural Resources, they may or may not have received EPA approval. This is a consequence of the process for the adoption of water quality standards which is as follows. Standards are adopted by the Board of Natural Resources after which they are filed with the Secretary of State’s office. The Secretary of State posts the newly adopted Rules on their website. Georgia then has to obtain the State Attorney General’s certification that the standards were adopted in accordance with State law. The standards can then be sent to U.S. EPA for approval. It can be many months between the time standards are adopted by the Board of Natural Resources and U.S. EPA approval is granted.

  Recent and Upcoming Revisions to Water Quality Standards

  Triennial Review





Current Water Quality Standards Development Plans and Guidance Documents

U.S. EPA has requested each State develop a strategy for adopting nutrient water quality criteria to protect waters from the adverse effects of nutrient over-enrichment. The development of nutrient criteria is a very complex matter since some level of nutrients are necessary for the health of the aquatic ecosystem, while too high of a concentration can cause an imbalance in the natural aquatic flora and fauna.  Therefore, in order to protect our natural resources, it is important that the criteria not be set too low or too high.  Georgia first developed a plan for adopting nutrient criteria in 2005.  This plan was subsequently revised in October 2008 and August 2013.  The revised plans have been reviewed and mutually agreed upon by U.S. EPA and the latest plan can be found below.

U.S. EPA Letter of Mutual Agreement [August 2013] 

Georgia EPD has developed strategies to address implementation of total phosphorus and ammonia in NPDES permitting.

Total Phosphorus Permitting Strategy

Ammonia Permitting Strategy

EPA, Georgia EPD, and South Carolina DHEC have collaborated on a report intended to provide technical support in developing and establishing numeric water quality criteria under the Clean Water Act to support the applicable designated uses in Georgia and South Carolina estuaries from the effects of excess nitrogen and phosphorus. The document is provided below.

An Approach to Develop Numeric Nutrient Criteria for Georgia and South Carolina Estuaries

Outstanding National Resource Water (ONRW) is a designation granted to waters that are to be afforded the highest level of protection under Tier 3 of the State's antidegradation policy. This designation will be considered for waters of exceptional ecological, recreational, aesthetic, or historic significance, including, but not limited to, those in National or State parks and wildlife refuges. For waters designated as ONRW, existing water quality shall be maintained and protected, and where feasible improved.

Procedures for Selection of Outstanding National Resource Waters

Additionally, since 2001, GA EPD has been utilizing Surface Water and Groundwater Withdrawal Permits to maintain adequate water levels to protect Aquatic Life.

Interim Instream Flow Protection Strategy


Victoria Adams: 404-463-4955