• Water quality criteria;
  • Nutrients;
  • Field-derived;
  • Regulations;
  • Environmental decision making


High levels of the nutrients nitrogen and phosphorus can cause unhealthy biological or ecological conditions in surface waters and prevent the attainment of their designated uses. Regulatory agencies are developing numeric criteria for these nutrients in an effort to ensure that the surface waters in their jurisdictions remain healthy and productive, and that water quality standards are met. These criteria are often derived using field measurements that relate nutrient concentrations and other water quality conditions to expected biological responses such as undesirable growth or changes in aquatic plant and animal communities. Ideally, these numeric criteria can be used to accurately “diagnose” ecosystem health and guide management decisions. However, the degree to which numeric nutrient criteria are useful for decision making depends on how accurately they reflect the status or risk of nutrient-related biological impairments. Numeric criteria that have little predictive value are not likely to be useful for managing nutrient concerns. This paper presents information on the role of numeric nutrient criteria as biological health indicators, and the potential benefits of sufficiently accurate criteria for nutrient management. In addition, it describes approaches being proposed or adopted in states such as Florida and Maine to improve the accuracy of numeric criteria and criteria-based decisions. This includes a preference for developing site-specific criteria in cases where sufficient data are available, and the use of nutrient concentration and biological response criteria together in a framework to support designated use attainment decisions. Together with systematic planning during criteria development, the accuracy of field-derived numeric nutrient criteria can be assessed and maximized as a part of an overall effort to manage nutrient water quality concerns. Integr Environ Assess Manag 2014;10:133–137. © 2013 SETAC