The Need for Wetlands Protection
By Ann Sullivan
Wetlands are a critical part of a healthy environment. They moderate the effects of floods and droughts, store and filter water, provide habitat for fish, wildlife and plants, and help to sustain biodiversity. However, despite the integral role they play in the environment, wetlands are still viewed by some as just another marshy piece of land that needs filling in to be of real use.
Photo by Flora Giesbrecht
Judy Stewart, a Cochrane resident and longtime wetlands and water advocate, would like to see a change in people’s attitudes toward these underappreciated areas. “[Wetlands] perform so many different functions that we need because of climate change,” Stewart says, “but no one has been able to put a dollar value on that.”
In 2013, the Government of Alberta introduced a new wetland policy to replace two interim policies from 1993. Stewart said she was encouraged by initial recommendations for the new policy, but she was not pleased with the final result. “What they put together is quite watered down,” she said of the current wetland policy. “I was quite disappointed,” she added. “We waited a long time for it.”
Stewart says the policy doesn’t go far enough to protect wetland areas. People in a municipal area who want to fill in a wetland on private land, for example, can apply to the provincial government for a permit. “Very rarely does the government not give approval,” she said. And, she adds, the policy only applies if people ask to disturb the wetland. Once an applicant receives approval from the province, Stewart says, municipalities often say they have no power to change the decision, and so the destruction of wetlands continues. “It’s very complex,” said Stewart, whose own interest in Alberta’s wetlands policy has spurred her to work on a PhD in government policies around water resources.
Wetland diagram curtesy of Mark Bennett, Bow River Basin Council
According to the provincial government, the goal of the 2013 Alberta wetland policy is to “conserve, restore, protect and manage Alberta's wetlands to sustain the benefits they provide to the environment, society and economy.” To this end, the government has created a system to measure the relative value of wetland areas, and a scale that places them in one of four categories, from high (A) to low (D). A “rapid evaluation tool,” also developed by the government, helps in the assessment and decision-making process.
Stewart said she agrees with having a consistent assessment tool. “What I disagree with is the value assessment itself,” which doesn’t necessarily take into consideration the seasonal/temporary nature of wetlands in Alberta or the fact that even in areas of wetland abundance, the loss of one area still has an impact.
Jeff Brookman has also been working to preserve local wetlands. Brookman is a member of YYC Cares, a group of concerned citizens who straddle the Southwest Calgary Ring Road (SWCRR), currently under construction. While members of YYC Cares support the ring road project, they believe it could have been done in a more environmentally friendly way. “People have no idea how wide that ring road is,” Brookman said. “Every interchange, every bridge is 100 metres wider than it needs to be. If we had skinnied it up, we could have avoided almost every single wetland.” Instead, he said, hundreds of thousands of truckloads of dirt have been dumped into the Elbow River valley, fragmenting the valley and possibly harming biodiversity in the river.
YYC Cares has been lobbying for the enforcement of regulations that would stop the destruction of wetlands close to the ring road. So far, the group has helped to save Wetland 6, also known as the Beaver Pond, in the Weaselhead area. Brookman said the wetland was supposed to be protected—that is, avoided altogether. Instead, the developer has built a retaining wall close to the wetland, which Brookman says is “mitigation, not avoidance.” A judicial review or court battle with developers could be costly, so for now, Brookman, says, “The only way you can fight [developers] is through change in the generations to come.”
In order to inform generations to come, the Elbow River Watershed Partnership (ERWP) is developing a watershed wetland inventory using ArcGIS. The ERWP’s Mark Giesbrecht is working with seven students from the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology to compile data on wetlands in the watershed, and the information will be incorporated into the ERWP’s State of the Watershed Report, to be written in the next 18 months.
So far, students have focused on three sub-basins within the Elbow River watershed: McLean Creek, Silvester Creek and Springbank Basin. They have mapped the three sub-basins and are currently mapping areas that look like wetlands using satellite imagery and existing topographic map data.
The goal, Giesbrecht said, is to map out the wetlands based on the satellite imagery and then validate the locations in the field. By walking the perimeters with a mobile GIS application, students will attempt to classify the wetlands and may find more wetlands than initially mapped.
Why map the wetlands in the Elbow River watershed? An inventory will give baseline information so that land use can be tracked as growth and development in the watershed continue. “Wetlands are increasingly being recognized for providing a suite of essential watershed services that have real value,” says Mark Bennett, executive director of the Bow River Basin Council. “A baseline inventory is critically important in seeking to preserve these key landscape features because if you don’t measure something, you can’t manage it.”
Photo by Miliana Giesbrecht
We should all be concerned with protecting and preserving our wetland areas, says Stewart, who notes that says she’s discouraged by the destruction of wetlands, especially in Cochrane where she is a resident. “I’m affected as a citizen, “she says, “because I realize and recognize that these wetlands are the only thing between us and droughts, floods and climate change.”
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