Preserving the Landscape: Minimizing Wetland Impact seen as First Step to Retention in Alberta

Wetlands provide many benefits to society and are important to Alberta’s landscape.

“Alberta is a very important location for wetlands,” said Barry Bishop, Head of Alberta Conservation Programs with Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC). “Historically in its pristine state, the wetland density that we had in this province rivaled that of anywhere in the world, and our boreal area in the north is basically one large wetland.”

Over 20 per cent of Alberta’s land surface is covered in wetlands. They provide important habitat for a variety of wildlife species.

“Virtually every species of shore bird, water bird and waterfowl use wetlands, but also amphibians, reptiles and insects can be found in wetlands during at least one point of their life cycle,” said Bishop.

Flood attenuation is another benefit of wetlands, as they hold water and slowly release it back into the landscape, which prevents high water events down stream. Wetlands store nutrients, such as phosphorus and nitrogen, contributing to water quality improvements on agricultural lands. Wetlands also provide a carbon sink, storing CO2. Despite their importance, Alberta’s wetlands are being lost every year.

“We are seeing a net loss in this province,” said Bishop.

DUC estimated that there has been a 64 per cent of loss of wetlands in Alberta, particularly in the settled areas of the province known as the White Area.

Over the past two decades, the Government of Alberta has developed policies aimed at protecting wetlands from loss and degradation due to human development. Alberta’s 1993 Interim Wetland Policy for the White Area described the province’s stepwise approach to wetland retention and restoration: to conserve wetlands in their natural state; to mitigate wetland degradation or loss; and to enhance or restore wetlands where depleted.

DUC is a Wetland Restoration Agency under the policy, which uses dollars derived from wetland loss to retain and restore wetlands.

The Provincial Wetland Restoration Guide (2007), developed to assist in the implementation of the Interim Wetland Policy, outlines how restoration agencies are to use funds paid by developers to compensate for the loss of natural wetlands.

“When a wetland is lost in Alberta it triggers an approval process that goes through the steps of: 1) avoidance; 2) mitigate for any impacts; and finally 3) if neither avoidance or minimizing the impacts can be achieved then compensation is triggered,” said Tracy Scott, Head of Alberta Industry and Government Relations with DUC. “This is where wetland restoration agencies come in. When compensation is paid to the provincial government, those dollars are then used for the restoration of wetlands elsewhere.”

The Government of Alberta released a new Wetland Policy on September 11, 2013 that replaces the 1993 interim policy. Compensation for lost wetlands under the new policy is focused on the value provided by a wetland instead of its land area.
Previously, Alberta’s policy was based on restoring a wetland by a minimum ratio of 3:1. For every acre of loss, three acres would be restored.
The new policy will determine wetland value by eight factors:  biodiversity, water quality improvement, flood reduction, human value and abundance. However, the policy doesn’t yet describe how these values will be determined or measured.

While a number of components of the new policy have yet to be developed, DUC is hopeful that the state of wetlands will improve in Alberta because of a renewed focus on the issue.

“Our stats show that for every acre of wetland restored in western Canada we lose approximately 5.7 acres, so we are losing between 0.3 and 0.5 per cent of the remaining wetlands in Alberta every year,” said Scott. “If we truly want to have an effective provincial wetland policy then the most urgent thing that we can do is halt the ongoing loss. Restoration is important, but if we continue to lose wetlands at the current rate then we’re never going to have anything other than a net-loss situation.”