Water Quality

No matter where you live, where you play, or where you work, clean water is a critical resource. NACD and conservation districts make sure landowners have the proper tools they need to protect water from sediment runoff, nutrients, and other contaminants. The association is also committed to being the voice of conservation districts on the most pressing federal water conservation issues, including the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) WOTUS rule.

Waters of the United States

NACD supports the recent legislative attempts to repeal the EPA’s Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, also known as the Clean Water Rule, and opposes any measure that expands the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act (CWA). After completing an economic analysis, EPA and USACE have estimated the rule would result in a 3 percent increase in CWA jurisdiction. The extent of the expansion is difficult to predict with precision; however, if the rule were to encompass all adjacent waters and most isolated wetlands and ditches, NACD estimates it would be significantly greater than 3 percent.

NACD supports the Supreme Court’s recent decision to leave the management of non-navigable waters in the hands of landowners and local governments. For more than 75 years, conservation districts have been leaders in locally-led efforts to ensure a clean and sustainable water supply for the nation. With earned trust and a proven ability to form partnerships at the local level, conservation districts are well positioned to play a key role in addressing water quality challenges in local communities. NACD continues to track WOTUS repeal legislation in Congress and is monitoring the courts’ ongoing review of the WOTUS rule.

For context, here’s a timeline of events:

  • April 2014: EPA published a proposed rule on the definition of WOTUS under CWA.
  • May 2015: The EPA published revised WOTUS rule language.
  • August 27, 2015: The North Dakota District Court issued a stay against the enforcement of the WOTUS rule in 13 states (Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming)
  • August 28, 2015: The WOTUS rule went into effect nationwide.
  • October 2015: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a nationwide stay against the enforcement of the WOTUS rule.
  • February 2016: The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled it had jurisdiction under CWA and a case could proceed.
  • July 2016: Multiple cases heard in courts across the country.


Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, called CAFOs for short, are large-scale livestock operations that take place in relatively confined areas. The definition of what constitutes a CAFO depends upon the number and type of livestock in the operation (go here for more details). One of the most significant challenges that CAFO operators face is efficiently managing animal waste. Proper management through Comprehensive Nutrient Management Plans (CNMP) helps ensure that manure and litter is collected, stored, and used or disposed of in an ecologically sound manner, preventing the contamination of the local watershed. The EPA regulates CAFOs that discharge or propose to discharge waste into waterbodies by requiring National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permits.

Conservation districts can work with CAFO operators to provide technical assistance and best management practices that ensure proper waste management occurs, and so EPA, state, and local regulations are met.


Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDLs) represent the total amount of a single pollutant a water body can receive and still meet minimum water quality standards to support existing and designated uses like recreational or commercial fishing, or community drinking water. Pollutants with designated TMDLs include sediments, heavy metals, chemicals, fecal coliform bacteria, and nutrients – most notably nitrogen and phosphorus.

Excessive water pollution can affect aquatic wildlife by creating hypoxic or “dead” zones (as seen in the Gulf of Mexico) or by contributing to toxic algal blooms, which have the potential to devastate tourism and contaminate drinking water supplies (as seen in the Western Lake Erie Basin and along Florida’s coasts). The Clean Water Act requires states, territories, and authorized tribes to identify bodies of water that do not meet water quality standards. These bodies of water are submitted to the EPA for review and approval for placement on the 303(d) list of impaired streams.

NACD and America’s conservation districts are actively engaged in supporting voluntary water quality programs in watersheds across the country. Our district members helped develop state Watershed Implementation Plans for the Chesapeake Bay; they collaborate with producer, governmental, and other conservation groups through the USDA Regional Conservation Partnership Program on water conservation projects countrywide; and lead payments for ecosystem services projects, such as the Big Sioux River Watershed Project in South Dakota.

Water Quality Trading

An emerging method of addressing nutrient pollution involves trading “water quality credits.” Because non-point pollution sources, like crop fields and suburban lawns, aren’t regulated under the Clean Water Act, farmers, ranchers, and even suburbanites can generate and sell credits to regulated point source polluters to help the latter offset their own discharges and meet their NPDES permit requirements.

Water quality trading is catching on nationwide, not only as an inexpensive way for factories and water treatment plants to ensure compliance with Clean Water Act provisions, but also as a method for reducing the amount of nutrient and sediment runoff that comes from farms. Producers generate the credits when they install conservation practices on their land that prevent a measurable amount of nutrient pollution from reaching adjacent waterways.

Conservation districts can play a key role in water quality trading markets as third-party brokers of credits or as credit verifying entities. One project that districts have been intimately involved in is the Ohio River Basin Trading Project, which spans conservation districts in Ohio, Indiana, and Kentucky. NACD is also in the process of developing a series of case studies on district-led water quality trading market initiatives in conjunction with the American Farmland Trust. Make sure to check in at our Newsroom for the latest updates on the project.


Source Water Collaborative Toolkit |PDF| This toolkit is useful for anyone working in source water protection. Each insightful tip is based on advice NACD received from NRCS and from state and regional source water coordinators who have fostered and maintained effective partnerships.

New Opportunities for Conservation Districts: Markets, Trading and Credits |PDFThis spring 2009 feature in NACD’s quarterly publication The Resource gives an overview of water quality trading markets and highlights the stories of conservation districts that have participated in these markets.

Water Works: Conservation Districts Tackling Water Issues |PDF| This May/June 2008 feature in NACD’s publication News and Views (the predecessor to The Resource) details several district-led water conservation projects.


Source Water Collaborative
NACD is a member of the national Source Water Collaborative, 25 organizations committed to working together to protect drinking water sources.  There are also collaborative efforts at the state, regional, and local levels, often with conservation district participation and leadership.

Environmental Protection Agency Office of Water
EPA Office of Water maintains resources on TMDLs, Water Quality Trading and other water quality issues, including weekly Water Headlines and other E-Newsletters.

Natural Resources Conservation Service
NRCS works cooperatively with a variety of landowners to provide technical and financial assistance in achieving natural resource conservation goals such as water quality.

Latest News

Calendar of Events

Find your Local District

Accessibility Toolbar