Alta. wetlands confusion reported

Alberta’s wetland policy is based on a wetland hierarchy of avoidance, minimization and replacement.  | File photo

When a government introduces a policy, most people have a basic question: what does this mean for me?

In the case of the wetlands policy in Alberta, many farmers and landowners have been asking: what is this doing “to” me?

But there’s another question that’s just as important, says a Ducks Unlimited Canada representative: what is the policy doing “for” me?

“The ag sector is almost exclusively the recipient of the financial benefits (of) the policy,” said Tracy Scott, head of industry and government relations with Ducks Unlimited in Alberta.

“The Alberta wetland policy enables a … payment for ecosystem services approach.”

The Alberta Wetland Policy took effect July 2016 with a goal of maintaining wetland areas and the ecological, social and economic benefits of wetlands.

The policy is based on three principles, or a wetland hierarchy:

  • Avoidance — an applicant must demonstrate every effort to avoid impacting wetland.
  • Minimization — the applicant must demonstrate efforts to minimize impact.
  • Replacement — if the development or project results in the permanent loss of the wetland, replacement is necessary.

“Anyone planning an activity within a wetland must submit an application and adhere to regulations” a provincial website says.

However, ephemeral wetlands, low areas that have water for only a few weeks of the year, are exempt from the rules.

If replacement is required, a farmer can restore, enhance or construct a wetland. As well, the farmer can make a payment to compensate for the loss of the wetland.

A third party, such as Ducks Unlimited, will use that money to restore a wetland somewhere else in the province and make payments to a landowner who is willing to participate.

“The funds derived from the wetland policy go almost exclusively to private landowners. As a rough estimate, this policy is putting almost $4 million a year into landowners’ pockets through the compensation payments in DUC’s restoration projects,” Scott said on the Ducks Unlimited website.

The policy may require replacement of wetlands, but it’s different from the “no net loss” system in Manitoba. Certain wetlands in Manitoba — Class 4 and 5 — cannot be drained.

In Alberta, no wetlands are completely off limits, but the system discourages drainage of high value wetlands.

Alberta rates wetlands on the value of their environmental services — such as flood mitigation, habitat and nutrient removal — on a scale of A, B, C and D.

If, for example, landowners remove an A value wetland, they would have to pay for eight D value wetlands.

If they’re draining a D, they need to replace it with one D.

“The province recognizes to enable economic development, some wetlands will be (affected),” Scott said. “But it also means if they are impacted, the province is shooting for an average mitigation ratio of three to one.”

The policy may be a deterrent, but Alberta is still losing wetlands in the agricultural region of the province. On average, 0.3 to 0.5 percent of the wetlands in the settled area of the province disappear every year.

“What it means … we do continue to lose wetlands to many forms of development,” Scott said.

One reason is awareness.

The wetland policy has been in place for nearly five years, but some producers don’t understand the rules.

“Confusion arises among landowners about what differentiates a wetland from a “low spot” and what kind of activities on their land is governed by wetland legislation,” the Alberta Wilderness Association said in 2019.

“Creating more awareness about the Alberta Wetland Policy among producers can improve wetland management.”

Scott agreed.

Some aren’t familiar with the rules and more education is needed.

“The first step we’re working on, in Alberta, is helping landowners understand their rights and obligations, when it comes to wetlands…. Quite often, it’s literally that people don’t know.”

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