Water Quality

The Water Quality toolbox is a ‘work in progress’ and represents information available to date on this subject. To suggest new materials for inclusion, email Lisa Ronald at lisa@wilderness.net.


The importance of water quality to wilderness is implied in the Wilderness Act of 1964, though it is not specifically mentioned. Protecting water is a necessity if wilderness is to be managed "so as to preserve its natural conditions" as the Wilderness Act calls out for. Retaining a wilderness area's "primeval character and influence" as also described in the Wilderness Act, means assuring an area's water quality; that is, it's temperature, chemistry, and turbidity, are within its natural range of variability, and are not degraded by modern civilization. Natural events such as floods, droughts, landslides and fires will influence water quality. The effect of natural events is not to be thought of in terms of good nor bad, they are events that shape the physical and biological properties, and thus, it's wilderness character. Natural conditions are not static, ecosystem change through natural processes is essential, but a natural ecosystem has only nominal influence from modern civilization. Degradation of water quality from human activity, either from outside of the wilderness or from recreational activities occurring in wilderness, needs to be monitored and corrected when identified.

The Clean Water Act (CWA) applies only to the waters of the United States, which includes all waters that are traditionally navigable, and tributaries of those waters. Many of the streams and rivers in wilderness meet this definition. Most headwater wilderness areas do not see significant degradation of water quality, but rather are the sources of the clean water that communities and other downstream water users rely upon. Downstream wilderness areas, however, are more likely to be subject to the effects of water pollution. In many cases, the CWA provides protections for water quality in wilderness.

The CWA provides the overall goal "to restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation's waters." To achieve this goal, states are required to develop and implement water quality standards, and point source pollutant discharges are regulated.

Water quality standards required by the CWA includes an anti-degradation standard for Outstanding National Resource Waters (ONRWs). Candidates for ONWR designation include "waters of exceptional recreational or ecological significance," which means a wilderness area's waters are likely candidates to be identified as an ONWR. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may not designate a water as an Outstanding National Resource Water where the State does not do so, but some states have protected wilderness waters as ONRWs. Once so designated, water quality must be maintained and protected, without exception, but for allowing some temporary degradation if water quality will return to its previous level after the temporary activity is completed.

The Wilderness Act, states that wilderness is "... for the use and enjoyment of the American people ..." with "...opportunities for solitude or primitive and unconfined types of recreation ...". Thus, some impact from human use of wilderness is acceptable; there can be no human use of an area without some impact to the biophysical environment. However, human use which causes excessive impact, including interfering with natural processes, would be inconsistent with the preservation of wilderness character. Impacts from human use of wilderness are generally only appropriate when the impacts to water quality are so small as to be nearly undetectable.


Agency Policy



Note: The following identifies and provides reference for the main policies describing water and soil issues in wilderness. Consult the Fish and Wildlife Service Manual for the complete policy.

Manual Part 610 FW1, Chapter 1.13

Preserving "wilderness character"... is a primary criterion for judging the appropriateness of proposed refuge management activities and refuge uses, including public use and enjoyment, in wilderness [including:] Maintaining watersheds and airsheds in a healthy condition.

Manual Part 610 FW2, Chapter 2.4 C.

We must protect water resources in wilderness areas by maintaining and protecting water quantity and water quality in accordance with legal authorities.


Management Policies (2006)

6.3.7 Natural Resources Management

Section: 6.3.7: Natural Resources Management "Recognizes that wilderness is a composite resource with interrelated parts. Without natural resources, especially indigenous and endemic species, a wilderness experience would not be possible. Natural resources are critical, defining elements of the wilderness resource, but need to be managed within the context of the whole ecosystem. Natural resource management plans will be integrated with, and cross-reference, wilderness management plans. Pursuing a series of independent component projects in wilderness, such as single- species management, will not necessarily accomplish the over-arching goal of wilderness management. Natural resources management in wilderness will include and be guided by a coordinated program of scientific inventory, monitoring, and research."

Within the National Park Services Management Policies (2006) are definitions related to park resources and values that are subject to the no-impairment standard. The physical processes that created the park and continue to act upon it are specifically mentioned, including water resources. Further this policy directs the Park Service to "reestablish natural functions and processes in parks unless otherwise directed by Congress. Landscapes disturbed by natural phenomena, such as landslides, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, and fires, will be allowed to recover naturally unless manipulation is necessary to protect other park resources, developments, or employee and public safety". "Impacts on natural systems resulting from human disturbances include the introduction of exotic species; the contamination of air, water, and soil; changes to hydrologic patterns and sediment transport; the acceleration of erosion and sedimentation; and the disruption of natural processes would be returned to natural conditions and processes using the best available technology and available resources".

"The principle of non-degradation will be applied to wilderness management, and each wilderness area's condition will be measured and assessed against its own unimpaired standard. Natural processes will be allowed, insofar as possible, to shape and control wilderness ecosystems. Management should seek to sustain the natural distribution, numbers, population composition, and interaction of indigenous species. Management intervention should only be undertaken to the extent necessary to correct past mistakes, the impacts of human use, and influences originating outside of wilderness boundaries."

"Management actions, including the restoration of extirpated native species, the altering of natural fire regimes, the controlling of invasive alien species, the management of endangered species, and the protection of air and water quality, should be attempted only when the knowledge and tools exist to accomplish clearly articulated goals."

Section 4.6.3 Water Quality

Section: 4.6.3: "The pollution of surface waters and groundwaters by both point and nonpoint sources can impair the natural functioning of aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems and diminish the utility of park waters for visitor use and enjoyment. The Service will determine the quality of park surface and groundwater resources and avoid, whenever possible, the pollution of park waters by human activities occurring within and outside the parks. The Service will

  • work with appropriate governmental bodies to obtain the highest possible standards available under the Clean Water Act for the protection for park waters;
  • take all necessary actions to maintain or restore the quality of surface waters and groundwaters within the parks consistent with the Clean Water Act and all other applicable federal, state, and local laws and regulations; and
  • enter into agreements with other agencies and governing bodies, as appropriate, to secure their cooperation in maintaining or restoring the quality of park water resources."

Management Guidelines, Processes, and Templates

Monitoring Resources

Case Studies in Preserving Wilderness Character

Case Study: In the Marjory Stoneman Douglas Wilderness in Everglades National Park, maintaining water quality is a major issue to preserving the integrity of the wilderness. Water flowing from agricultural fields picks up nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients, and these nutrients have considerable adverse effects on plant growth and the ecology of the habitats within the wilderness. Managing the quantity of water is a major focus of water management, but if the quantity of water does not meet water quality standards, the effort of protecting the essential quantity of water may be futile. In response to these water quality issues, a state-federal partnership to restore the ecosystem of the Everglades has purchased upstream agricultural land to store water where managed vegetation will use up the nutrients, thus cleaning the water before it is allowed to flow into the wilderness. However, during emergency situations such as extreme weather events (e.g., heavy rain events or pre-hurricane preparation), flood hazard management can prompt regional water managers to send untreated water into the Park. The result is a greater quantity of water for the wilderness, but water that may not be within water quality standards appropriate for preserving wilderness character.

Research and Other Publications