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N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources

NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources
Water Quality - Classification and Standards Unit: Classifications

Water Quality

NC WATER QUALITY CLASSIFICATIONS BY NC RIVER BASIN

Hydrologic List of waterbodies for each NC river basin  

Broad, Cape Fear, Catawba, ChowanFrench Broad, HiwasseeLittle Tennessee, Lumber,
Neuse, New, Pasquotank, Roanoke, Savannah, Tar-Pamlico, Watauga, White Oak,
Yadkin Pee-Dee

Alphabetic List of waterbodies for each NC river basin

Broad, Cape Fear, Catawba, Chowan, French Broad, HiwasseeLittle Tennessee, Lumber,
Neuse, New, Pasquotank, Roanoke, Savannah, Tar-Pamlico, Watauga, White Oak,
Yadkin Pee-Dee

GIS DOWNLOADS

Download shapefiles containing NC 
surface water classifications.

CLASSIFICATIONS
Short Descriptions

 B: Primary Recreation, Fresh Water
 C: Aquatic Life, Secondary Recreation, Fres
 CA: Critical Area
 FWS: Future Water Supply Waters
 HQW: High Quality Waters
 N/A: Not Applicable/Out of State
 NSW: Nutrient Sensitive Waters
 ORW: Outstanding Resource Waters
 SA: Market Shellfishing, Salt Water
 SB: Primary Recreation, Salt Water
 SC: Aquatic Life, Secondary Recreation, Salt
 Sw: Swamp Waters
 Tr: Trout Waters
 UWL: Unique Wetland
 WS-I: Water Supply I - Natural
 WS-II: Water Supply II - Undeveloped
 WS-III: Water Supply III - Moderately Developed
 WS-IV: Water Supply IV - Highly Developed
 WS-V: Water Supply V - Upstream
 +, @, #, *: Special Designations

Scroll further down this page for a more detailed explanation of each classification.

SURFACE WATER CLASSIFICATIONS

With very few exceptions, all surface waters in North Carolina carry a classification.

On this page you can learn about the classification process, how classifications may affect you and look up the classification of a stream.

FREQUENTLY REQUESTED DOCUMENTS

WHAT ARE SURFACE WATER CLASSIFICATIONS?

Surface Water Classifications are designations applied to surface water bodies, such as streams, rivers and lakes, which define the best uses to be protected within these waters (for example swimming, fishing, drinking water supply) and carry with them an associated set of water quality standards to protect those uses. Surface water classifications are one tool that state and federal agencies use to manage and protect all streams, rivers, lakes, and other surface waters in North Carolina. Classifications and their associated protection rules may be designed to protect water quality, fish and wildlife, or other special characteristics.  Each classification has associated standards that are used to determine if the designated uses are being protected.

HOW DO CLASSIFICATIONS AFFECT ME?

Before you buy property, plan a new development project, construct a new road or undertake other land use activities, you should check with local, state and federal agencies about the assigned surface water classification for the waterbody on your property. Many of the classifications, especially those designed to protect drinking water supplies and certain high quality waters, have protection rules which regulate activities, such as development, that may impact surface water quality.  In addition, please note that depending on the classification of an adjacent water body, some types of activities may be restricted.

WHY DO THEY SOMETIMES OVERLAP?

Many streams, rivers and lakes may have several classifications applied to the same area. This is because surface waters are classified to protect different uses or special characteristics of the waterbody. For example, a stream or specific stream segment may be classified as Class WS-III Tr HQW by the NC Division of Water Resources (DWR). This protects it as a drinking water supply (WS-III), as Trout Waters (Tr) and as High Quality Waters (HQW). The stream segments upstream or downstream may have different classifications based on other water uses or stream characteristics.

HOW DO I DETERMINE MY STREAM'S CLASSIFICATION?

DWR classifies all surface waters. Schedules of Classifications identify surface water bodies by basin, name (primarily taken from U.S. Geological Survey topographic maps), and the water classification assigned to the various segments of the watercourse.

Surface water classification data is available online.  If you would like to obtain a hardcopy of the Schedule of Classifications for a river basin, or a complete set of schedules (17 schedules), or if you need assistance in determining the classification of a waterbody, contact the central office in Raleigh or any of the regional offices. You should also contact other agencies for any of their classifications which may apply.

HOW ARE THESE CLASSIFICATIONS DETERMINED?

They are based on the rules as defined in the NC Administrative Code. Classifications and their rules are regularly updated and revised, so check with the appropriate agencies before starting any project.

The rules are based on the minimum protection rules of state and federal agencies. Local governments, in most cases, can adopt more stringent land use or water resource protection rules. Check with the local government(s) that has jurisdiction over your land for any local rules and procedures that may apply.

HOW CAN A WATER'S CLASSIFICATION BE CHANGED?

A waterbody's classification may change at the request of a local government or citizen. DWR reviews each request for a reclassification and conducts an assessment of the waterbody to determine the appropriateness of the reclassification. DWR also conducts periodic waterbody assessments which may result in a recommendation to reclassify the waterbody. In order for a waterbody to be reclassified it must proceed through the rule-making process.  To inititate a reclassification complete the "Application to Request Reclassification of NC Surface Water." To request a copy, you may contact staff. More detailed information is available in the document entitled, Reclassification of Surface Waters in North Carolina.

WHERE CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION?

More detailed information about surface freshwater classifications is available in the pamphlet entitled,  A Guide to Surface Freshwater Classifications in North Carolina.  This document includes a table comparing the differing regulations of classifications for these waters; the non-tabular information presented in this document is provided on this web page and additional web pages on this website.  To view the pamphlet's table, see the link at the top of this webpage.  The table does not include information on classifications which are not currently assigned to any surface freshwaters.  For questions about North Carolina's Tidal Saltwater Classifications contact the Classifications and Standards/Rules Review Branch staff.

DWR PRIMARY SURFACE WATER CLASSIFICATIONS

All surface waters in North Carolina are assigned a primary classification by the NC Division of Water Resources (DWR). All waters must at least meet the standards for Class C (fishable / swimmable) waters. The other primary classifications provide additional levels of protection for primary water contact recreation (Class B) and drinking water (Water Supply Classes I through V). To find the classification of a particular water body you can either use the BIMS database or contact Adriene Weaver of the Classifications & Standards/Rules Review Branch. To view the regulatory differences between the currently implemented classifications for freshwaters, click here for the freshwater classifications table.  To view the regulatory differences between the currently implemented classifications for tidal saltwaters, click here for the tidal saltwaters classifications table.

 

Class C

Waters protected for uses such as secondary recreation, fishing, wildlife, fish consumption, aquatic life including propagation, survival and maintenance of biological integrity, and agriculture. Secondary recreation includes wading, boating, and other uses involving human body contact with water where such activities take place in an infrequent, unorganized, or incidental manner. 

Class B

Waters protected for all Class C uses in addition to primary recreation. Primary recreational activities include swimming, skin diving, water skiing, and similar uses involving human body contact with water where such activities take place in an organized manner or on a frequent basis. 

Water Supply I (WS-I)

Waters protected for all Class C uses plus waters used as sources of water supply for drinking, culinary, or food processing purposes for those users desiring maximum protection for their water supplies. WS-I waters are those within natural and undeveloped watersheds in public ownership. All WS-I waters are HQW by supplemental classification. More information: Water Supply Watershed Protection Program Homepage

Water Supply II (WS-II)

Waters used as sources of water supply for drinking, culinary, or food processing purposes where a WS-I classification is not feasible. These waters are also protected for Class C uses. WS-II waters are generally in predominantly undeveloped watersheds.  All WS-II waters are HQW by supplemental classification. More information: Water Supply Watershed Protection Program Homepage

Water Supply III (WS-III)

Waters used as sources of water supply for drinking, culinary, or food processing purposes where a more protective WS-I or II classification is not feasible. These waters are also protected for Class C uses. WS-III waters are generally in low to moderately developed watersheds. More information: Water Supply Watershed Protection Program Homepage

Water Supply IV (WS-IV)

Waters used as sources of water supply for drinking, culinary, or food processing purposes where a WS-I, II or III classification is not feasible. These waters are also protected for Class C uses. WS-IV waters are generally in moderately to highly developed watersheds or Protected Areas. More information: Water Supply Watershed Protection Program Homepage

Water Supply V (WS-V)

Waters protected as water supplies which are generally upstream and draining to Class WS-IV waters or waters used by industry to supply their employees with drinking water or as waters formerly used as water supply. These waters are also protected for Class C uses. More information: Water Supply Watershed Protection Program Homepage

Class WL

Freshwater Wetlands are a subset of all wetlands, which in turn are waters that support vegetation that is adapted to life in saturated soil conditions.  Wetlands generally include swamps, marshes, bogs, and similar areas.  These waters are protected for storm and flood water storage, aquatic life, wildlife, hydrologic functions, filtration and shoreline protection.

Class SC

All tidal salt waters protected for secondary recreation such as fishing, boating, and other activities involving minimal skin contact; fish and noncommercial shellfish consumption; aquatic life propagation and survival; and wildlife.

Class SB

Tidal salt waters protected for all SC uses in addition to primary recreation. Primary recreational activities include swimming, skin diving, water skiing, and similar uses involving human body contact with water where such activities take place in an organized manner or on a frequent basis.

Class SA

Tidal salt waters that are used for commercial shellfishing or marketing purposes and are also protected for all Class SC and Class SB uses.  All SA waters are also HQW by supplemental classification.   

Class SWL

These are saltwaters that meet the definition of coastal wetlands as defined by the Division of Coastal Management and which are located landward of the mean high water line or wetlands contiguous to estuarine waters as defined by the Division of Coastal Management.

DWR SUPPLEMENTAL CLASSIFICATIONS

Supplemental classifications are sometimes added by DWR to the primary classifications to provide additional protection to waters with special uses or values.

Future Water Supply (FWS)

Supplemental classification for waters intended as a future source of drinking, culinary, or food processing purposes. FWS would be applied to one of the primary water supply classifications (WS-I, WS-II, WS-III, or WS-IV). Currently no water bodies in the state carry this designation.

High Quality Waters (HQW)

Supplemental classification intended to protect waters which are rated excellent based on biological and physical/chemical characteristics through Division monitoring or special studies, primary nursery areas designated by the Marine Fisheries Commission, and other functional nursery areas designated by the Marine Fisheries Commission.

The following waters are HQW by definition: 

  • WS-I,
  • WS-II,
  • SA (commercial shellfishing),
  • ORW,
  • Primary nursery areas (PNA) or other functional nursery areas designated by the Marine Fisheries Commission, or
  • Waters for which DWR has received a petition for reclassification to either WS-I or WS-II.

 

Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW)

All outstanding resource waters are a subset of High Quality Waters. This supplemental classification is intended to protect unique and special waters having excellent water quality and being of exceptional state or national ecological or recreational significance. To qualify, waters must be rated Excellent by DWR and have one of the following outstanding resource values:

  • Outstanding fish habitat and fisheries,
  • Unusually high level of waterbased recreation or potential for such kind of recreation,
  • Some special designation such as North Carolina Natural and Scenic River or National Wildlife Refuge,
  • Important component of state or national park or forest, or
  • Special ecological or scientific significance (rare or endangered species habitat, research or educational areas).


For more details, refer to the Biological Assessment Branch homepage.

Nutrient Sensitive Waters (NSW)

Supplemental classification intended for waters needing additional nutrient management due to being subject to excessive growth of microscopic or macroscopic vegetation.

Swamp Waters (Sw)

Supplemental classification intended to recognize those waters which have low velocities and other natural characteristics which are different from adjacent streams. 

Trout Waters (Tr)

Supplemental classification intended to protect freshwaters which have conditions which shall sustain and allow for trout propagation and survival of stocked trout on a year-round basis. This classification is not the same as the NC Wildlife Resources Commission's Designated Public Mountain Trout Waters designation.  

Unique Wetland (UWL)

Supplemental classification for wetlands of exceptional state or national ecological significance.  These wetlands may include wetlands that have been documented to the satisfaction of the Environmental Management Commission as habitat essential for the conservation of state or federally listed threatened or endangered species.  

SPECIAL DESIGNATION DESCRIPTIONS

Cape Fear River Basin

@
See rule 15A NCAC 2B.0311: Development is not subject to rule 15A NCAC 2H.1006, if the governing municipality has deemed that the development is covered under a "5/70 provision" as described in Rule 15A NCAC 2B.0215(3)(b)(i)(E).
*
This symbol identifies waters that are within a designated Critical Supply Watershed and are subject to a special management strategy specified in 15A NCAC 2B .0248.
#
Discharges of sewage are prohibited to segments classified SB or SC with a pound sign according to the provisions of 15 NCAC 2B .0203 and 2H .0404(a) in order to protect adjacent shellfishing waters.
+
This symbol identifies waters that are subject to a special management strategy specified in 15A NCAC 2B .0225 the Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW) rule.

Catawba River Basin

+
This symbol identifies waters that are subject to a special management strategy specified in 15A NCAC 2B .0225 the Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW) rule, in order to protect downstream waters designated as ORW.

Little Tennessee River Basin

@
This symbol identifies waters that are subject to the specific actions specified in 15A NCAC 2B .0224, the High Quality Waters (HQW) rule, in order to protect downstream waters designated as HQW.
#
Point source discharges are prohibited to segments classified HQW with a pound sign according to the provisions of 15A NCAC 2B .0201 in order to protect the existing and anticipated usage of those waters.

Lumber River Basin

+
This symbol identifies waters that are subject to a special management strategy specified in 15A NCAC
2B .0225 the Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW) rule.
@
This symbol identifies waters that are subject to a special management strategy specified in 15A NCAC 2B .0227 WATER QUALITY MANAGEMENT PLANS.

New River Basin

+
This symbol identifies waters that are subject to a special management strategy specified in 15A NCAC 2B .0225 the Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW) rule, in order to protect downstream waters designated as ORW.

Savannah River Basin

@
This symbol identifies waters that are subject to the management strategy specified in 15A NCAC 2B .0201, applied to High Quality Waters (HQW), in order to protect downstream waters.
+
This symbol identifies waters that are subject to a special management strategy specified in 15A NCAC 2B .0225 the Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW) rule, in order to protect downstream waters designated as ORW.

Tar-Pamlico River Basin

+
This symbol identifies waters that are subject to a special management strategy specified in 15A NCAC 2B .0225 the Outstanding Resource Waters (ORW) rule.

White Oak River Basin

#
Discharges of sewage are prohibited to segments classified SB or SC with a pound sign according to the provisions of 15 NCAC 2B .0203 and 2H .0404(a) in order to protect adjacent shellfishing waters.

ADDITIONAL SURFACE WATER DESIGNATIONS DETERMINED BY OTHER AGENCIES 

NC Natural and Scenic Rivers

A state government river designation intended to protect certain free flowing rivers or segments with outstanding natural, scenic, educational, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, scientific or other cultural values. There are three river classifications: Natural, Scenic, and Recreational river areas. This classification is administered by the NC Division of Parks and Recreation

Federal Wild and Scenic Rivers

A federal government river designation intended to protect certain free flowing rivers or segments with outstanding scenic, recreational, geologic, fish and wildlife, historic, archaeologic or other values. There are three river classifications: Wild, Scenic, and Recreational.   

Designated Public Mountain Trout Waters

A state fishery management designation administered by the NC Wildlife Resources Commission which provides for public access to streams for fishing on private and public lands. It regulates fishing activities only (seasons, size limits, creel limits, and bait and lure restrictions) and is not the same classification as the DWQ Tr classification which protects water quality.

Areas of Environmental Concern

The Division of Coastal Management is responsible for maintaining estuarine Areas of Environmental Concern (AECs) and establishing Specific Use Standards that specify the types of projects and construction methods that may be located/used in AECs.

Designated Shellfish Harvesting Areas

The Shellfish Sanitation and Recreational Water Quality Branch of the Division of Environmental Health monitors saltwaters for their quality and public safety relative to the harvesting of shellfish.  They are responsible for monitoring shellfish harvesting areas and closing them if there is danger to the public from consumption of shellfish from a particular area.

Primary Nursery Areas

Primary Nursery Areas, as defined by the Marine Fisheries Commission, are those areas in the estuarine system where initial post-larval development takes place.  These areas are usually located in the uppermost sections of a system where populations are uniformly very early juveniles.  The Division of Marine Fisheries is responsible for preserving, protecting and developing Primary Nursery Areas for commercially important finfish and shellfish. More Information: Special Designations Descriptions

No-Discharge Zones

A No Discharge Zone (as defined by the EPA (http://www.epa.gov/region4/water/coastal/index.html)) is an area of water where discharge of waste from marine toilets is prohibited.  A state with concurrence from EPA may choose to take this action if the state determines that the protection and enhancement of the quality of the specified waters require greater environmental protection than current federal standards allow. Get more information about NC's NDZs.  

 

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