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Water Today Title December 11, 2017

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Updated 10/21/13

Alberta drops no-net loss provisions in new wetland policy

Jay White

The Province of Alberta has been operating under a draft wetland policy for the white zone (the lower third of the Province) for the past 20 years since draft policy was created for white zone wetlands and a discussion paper created for green zone wetlands. Albertans were promised a merger of these two documents into a comprehensive Wetland Policy in 1999 when the old Water Resources Act was updated to the modern Water Act. That never happened, and we have been operating under draft policy for the past 20 years.

Many Albertans have patiently waited for a comprehensive policy and on September 10, after very little advance warning, that wish was granted by Environment Minister Diana McQueen. I say very little warning because earlier this year Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development held “water conversations” across the Province, and the wetland policy was notably absent from any of the 4 themes discussed. However, the policy was rolled out to a select few stakeholders over a series of meetings last fall to ratify issues around implementation including wetland function, compensation, and mitigation.

The biggest bombshell in the new comprehensive policy is the removal of the no-net loss provisions and philosophy contained within the previous draft policy. The current policy simply does not allow for an increase in wetland area in the province, nor does it address past losses. The removal is essentially an admission of our failure as a Province to even come close to meeting the objectives of no net loss. With losses of up to 70% of our white zone (prairie pothole) wetlands in the south, over 300,000 hectares of wetlands in the oil sands and over 90% of our wetlands in major urban centres, it is hard to argue with trying to continue to giving lip service to no net loss principles.

This current policy still leaves the department with little meaningful mechanisms to say “no” to developments that occur on sensitive or high-value wetlands either by denying Approvals or making compensation economically unfeasible. Such an approach backfired in the City of Calgary where developers were happy to pay for actual land values as part of City’s private compensation program, leaving administration with millions of dollars to spend on restoration, but no lands to do it on.

With the removal of no-net loss and the area-based approach comes a new approach of protecting wetland function. However, after many years of funding University researchers from the U of A and University of Western Ontario, we have not landed on any sort of meaningful functional tools for assessment. The current policy now must have this figured out and operational by August 2014—less than one year from now. There is some hope from an American functional tool being piloted in the South Saskatchewan basin but it is limited to marsh type wetlands in the southern part of the Province. The development of a functionality tool for peatlands is completely lacking, and that will need to be in place by August 2015.

We have failed wetlands both on protecting at the project Approvals stage and on restoration following Approval. Most Municipalities are completely unaware when a developer proposes a development that destroys wetlands, especially difficult to identify wetlands such as shrubby fens or bogs (the latter of which are almost completely dry wetlands). Consultants are often not trained to recognize wetlands on the landscape, and often lack the professional experience with soils, vegetation and hydrology required to do an adequate job.

The average Albertan can only relate to wetlands as either “muskeg” or “sloughs”, of which both terms are somewhat derogatory. There is a complete lack of understanding by the general public on the importance of both wetlands and riparian areas and the provision of ecological goods and services they provide to us every day. Only after intense flooding in the province do we start to pay attention to wetland drainage and development in sensitive riparian areas. Clear examples in Kananaskis following the floods can be seen where natural systems were far more resilient and less damaged following the floods than were engineered, landscaped and disturbed lands that offered little or no protection from surging flood waters.

We have failed wetlands on the restoration side as well. Only one Wetland Restoration Agency (WRA) officially exists for the province, and while they receive the funds from land developers, they are handcuffed by another national program’s mandate on how and where to restore wetlands. They are also restricted to restoring only wetlands that have already been drained in Alberta. This results in the majority of the dollars received being spent on restoring one type of wetland in a very small geographic area of the province. For example, only oil sands developers are currently tackling peatland restoration in the northern part of the province. The new wetland policy does address this shortcoming, and additional WRA’s are being encouraged to participate, with more creative ways of adding wetlands to the landscape, and with non-restorative replacement such as education and research. Welcome news, and this may also help alleviate some of the backlog of funds that have been collected from wetland destruction but not yet spent.

After 20 years of inactivity on wetland policy, this current policy seems rushed and this may be due to some of the other major regulatory changes currently at play within the Province. This policy is a legislative requirement under the Land Use Framework’s Lower Athabasca Regional Plan, and has also been requested by the new Alberta Energy Regulator, who in less than one year will have control over water and all waterbodies associated with energy developments (upstream oil and gas, oil sands and coal). There are billions of dollars of development at stake. This sudden haste may be why this policy leaves much to be decided, especially on wetland function.

There is still hope that public pressure on the government and constructive criticism received by Albertans will help strengthen the implementation of the new Wetland Policy. How a policy is implemented is often far more important than the ideas within it.

Other excellent reviews of this policy have been released by Alberta Wilderness Association and
Alberta Environmental Law Centre.

Jay White is the principle researcher and CEO of Aquality Environmental Consulting Ltd. He is a certified Alberta Professional Biologist and Qualified Wetland Aquatic Environment Specialist.

Government of Alberta Wetland Policy website

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