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Building a Water Quality Trading Program: Options and Considerations

A Product of the National Network on Water Quality Trading

This report aims to provide a reference on common elements and decisions inherent in water quality trading (WQT) program design, especially point-nonpoint WQT programs and the range of available options.

It is intended to help establish WQT programs, provide greater transparency about what WQT programs can accomplish, and assist WQT program developers and broader stakeholders to meet their clean water goals.

Key Findings

Executive Summary

The United States has made significant progress in cleaning its rivers, lakes, and oceans. Investment in wastewater treatment plant technology, conservation practices with land managers, and restoration of natural systems is working in many places. The public continually supports clean water, yet there is still a long way to go in achieving the vision of fishable, swimmable waters. More than half of the country’s streams, lakes, and estuaries are not meeting the water quality standards established under the Clean Water Act to provide clean drinking water, recreation, fish and wildlife habitat, and other designated uses.

The work that lies ahead to achieve clean water will require additional tools and new approaches that can account for watershed dynamics, allow flexibility on how to achieve clear, enforceable goals, and target investment where it can most effectively improve water quality. Water quality trading, under the right conditions, can fit these criteria.

About the National Network on WQT

This report was developed by the National Network on WQT, a dialogue among 18 diverse organizations representing agriculture, wastewater utilities, environmental groups, regulatory agencies, and the practitioners delivering WQT programs. The purpose of the National Network is to establish a national dialogue on how water quality trading can best contribute to achieving clean water goals. That includes providing options and recommendations to improve consistency, innovation, and integrity in water quality trading.

The organizations below participated in the development of this report through a series of workshops and communications held between 2013-2015:

Network Participants

American Farmland Trust

Association of Clean Water Administrators

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Electric Power Research Institute

Environmental Defense Fund

Kieser & Associates, LLC

Maryland Department of Agriculture

Mississippi River Collaborative

National Association of Clean Water Agencies

National Association of Conservation Districts

National Milk Producers Federation

The Freshwater Trust

The Ohio Farm Bureau Federation

Troutman Sanders

U.S. Water Alliance


Willamette Partnership


Technical Advisor

U.S. Department of Agriculture

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