High Quality Waters & Outstanding Resource Waters

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.  

High Quality Waters

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

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).


Both the HQW and ORW programs are implemented by NCDEMLR unless there is a local government stormwater program that supersedes the state stormwater program.  The 15A NCAC 2H .1000 rules contain the stormwater management requirements associated with the HQW and ORW programs.