Integrating Wetlands in Municipal Planning: Alberta County Becomes Newest Wetland Restorarion Agency

Dawn Rosset knows there’s a fine balance between crop production and retaining wetlands in Alberta.

“Wetlands sometimes get looked at as wastelands in terms of agricultural production,” said Rosset. “We need to inform people that there is value and benefit to leaving wetlands on the landscape.”

Rosset is the Wetland Coordinator at County of Vermilion River, the first rural municipality in Alberta to become a Wetland Restoration Agency. In April 2013, the County of Vermilion River and Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development (AESRD) entered into a five-year agreement that gave the County the ability to collect compensation funds for wetland restoration and enhancement work.

Restoration funds are part of the wetland mitigation process. This occurs when industry or developers cannot avoid disturbing a wetland. The applicant is required by the Water Act to  pay a compensation fee. The County is then responsible to use those funds to replace the lost wetland within the boundaries of the county. The goal was to implement an accountable and transparent process to replace lost wetlands in the rural municipality.

The County partnered with Delta Waterfowl and Cows & Fish to develop and implement a Wetlands Mitigation Program, and hired Rosset as a full-time Wetland Coordinator.

The County’s plan targets three areas: drainage corridors, municipal lands and the implementation of an Alternative Land Use Services (ALUS) program for private agricultural lands. The ALUS program is being continued following a successful three-year pilot project.

Producers are paid for retaining and reconstructing natural areas, including wetlands, grasslands, riparian areas and trees – and the ecosystem services they provide, such as carbon storage, clean and filtered water, slowed water velocity for flood mitigation, and provide habitat for wildlife.

“In Alberta, a lot of people are excited about programs for ecosystem services,” said Rosset. “It’s nice to be a part of it and being able to share our experience.”

The reception from landowners has been positive for the municipality. Twenty land owners signed up for the program in the first year, encompassing approximately 2,000 acres of land.

“There are a lot of producers that are interested in participating in the ALUS program,” said Rosset. “They must apply through the ALUS coordinator and then there is a selection process to ensure the application meets certain criteria.“

The program is voluntary and allows producers to use the affected wetland and riparian areas in times of drought. The result is that producers do not receive payment from the ALUS program during the time the land is in use.
“It’s still their land to use and because it’s voluntary the producers are in charge of the land,” said Rosset. “It’s producer led decisions.”

Howie Bjorge, Agricultural Fieldman with the County of Vermilion River, noted that attitudes regarding wetlands changed in 2002 after a serious drought. Many wells in the municipality went dry and there became more of an appreciation for the aquifer recharge capability of surface water bodies.

“At that time crops were very poor [quality] and both farmers and ranchers were short of water for their livestock needs, and municipalities were starting to be concerned about water supply for their residents,” said Bjorge. “After that we started to look at water as a resource and not necessarily something that was in the way of development. That was a turning point in the prairies.”

As a new Wetland Restoration Agency, the County feels it can deliver wetland restoration by integrating it with existing functions, including storm water and surface water management. The goal is to keep wetlands spread evenly throughout the municipality in order to deliver ecosystem services, while keeping restoration in close proximity to the original wetland disturbance.

“We have a large impact as a municipality,” said Bjorge. “We build roads and approve subdivisions, which modifies surface water and impacts wetlands. So we started asking ourselves if we couldn’t integrate some of the functions and overlay the benefits on one geographic site, as opposed to having a subdivision here and a wetland here,  and maybe integrate them through our planning process.”

In its plan, the County also aims to use wetlands as an aesthetic feature in new municipal development wherever possible.

“Because we issue development permits, we do have influence on a developer’s site plan to incorporate a wetland into a development, and more importantly, retain a wetland instead of destroying it,” said Bjorge. “We feel that municipalities are in a fairly strong position to deliver effective wetland programs.”