Wheatland County turning to DUC to restore wetlands

·5 min read

Rather than performing wetland restoration on its own, Wheatland County will help bring wetlands back on the landscape by promoting the ongoing work of Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC).

Under the Alberta Wetland Policy, parties working near wetlands for such activities as infrastructure construction or maintenance, must first try to avoid impacting them. If avoidance is not possible, impacts must be minimized. But if the work must result in permanent loss of wetland area (e.g. infilling, drainage), and the party receives regulatory approval to do so, they are then responsible for wetland replacement.

To replace the impacted wetland area, the working party is required to either perform the replacement themselves (by restoring, enhancing or constructing wetlands) or pay compensation to a centralized, provincial fund used to support the policy, including wetland replacement. Paying into the fund is typically the more cost-effective option and hence is selected by permit holders more often. As a result, the fund has been growing.

A priority of the Alberta Wetland Policy is to replace wetlands in municipalities and watersheds that have had the highest amounts of wetland area and value since 2015, as well as areas with high historical wetland loss, according to the province.

The provincial government has approached such high-priority municipalities, including Wheatland County, for it to become actively involved in wetland management through an initiative called the Wetland Replacement Program (WRP). Under this program, Alberta Environment and Parks (AEP) will work with municipalities to re-establish wetlands using money from the provincial fund.

“What the province is saying is, ‘we’ve collected all this money, now we need to put wetlands back on the landscape,’” explained Alyssa Robb, Wheatland County’s environmental coordinator.

Involvement in the program would require Wheatland County to sign a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the province to demonstrate county commitment to seeking wetland replacement opportunities, submit one application for a wetland replacement per year and perform approved funded replacement work.

There would still be costs to the county, however – it would need to seek and identify potential restoration or construction opportunities, and would be responsible for advertisement and landowner consultation. Each proposal, requiring qualified consultants, would cost about $25,000, with approval not guaranteed. Also, staff resources would be required for landowner agreements and contract management through design, construction and a subsequent 10-year required monitoring period.

Wheatland County’s Agricultural Service Board (ASB) ultimately decided not to sign the MOU during its regular meeting on Oct. 6.

The main issue with partnering with the government of Alberta is that it is unclear whether the county’s returns would match its required contributions to the program, said ASB chair and Division One Councillor Jason Montgomery. “The municipalities in the north that are in the program have trouble coming up with a significant amount of potential wetland restoration projects to make it worth it,” he said.

Instead, Wheatland’s ASB voted to promote the ongoing work of DUC of restoring wetlands throughout the county. “We believe that there are independent groups and organizations that are doing a good job, and we believe we should support proven and local environmental protection efforts,” said Wilson.

By opting to work with DUC, the county can spend less effort and fewer ratepayer dollars to get the same reward, added Robb.

Between 2015 and 2020, DUC has completed 13 restoration projects, representing 247 hectares of wetlands restored, throughout Wheatland County. This is a considerable amount compared to the 244 hectares of wetlands impacted throughout the entire Bow River Basin (of which five hectares were impacted by the county) during that same time period, she said.

Throughout the province, the organization restores about 900 acres (about 365 hectares) of wetlands per year, said Tracy Scott, DUC’s head of industry and government relations for Alberta. “Our core business is wetland restoration,” he said.

This restoration work is done in partnership with private landowners and, increasingly, with rural municipalities. Awareness is spreading that wetlands provide benefits – known as environmental goods and services – beyond supplying wildlife habitat, said Scott. “Wetlands are not just duck habitat – they are valuable, and society is really beginning to understand that.”

Across southern Alberta, DUC has found that one the largest benefits wetland restoration provides is flood attenuation, meaning they provide water storage available during heavy runoff or rainfall events.

This has opened the eyes of municipalities spending a considerable part of their budget maintaining built infrastructure, particularly roads and bridges, he said. “If you have intact wetlands, you are able to effectively protect that built infrastructure from damage from flooding.”

Ultimately, having municipalities and DUC working together is beneficial to all the parties involved, added Scott.

Municipalities can inform DUC about potential opportunities for restoration. “As they’re out meeting landowners or doing weed inspections or any of the numerous things that municipalities can do, they start to spot and identify these opportunities,” he said.

By working with DUC, they can also have a hand in selecting where restoration takes place. “If they have a section of road that gets flooded on a regular basis, they can start to look at whether there are opportunities upstream of that, which may include drained wetlands that are contributing to that flooding.”

Landowners are compensated for having a DUC restoration performed on their property, which may include the creation of a conservation easement to protect the wetland into the future (while retaining ownership).

“Looking at the bottom line is a big part of farming – it’s a big business, it’s an expensive business and it’s a high-risk business,” said Scott. “So, one of the things we’re doing is to help provide another revenue stream.”

But it also provides them an opportunity to become involved in land stewardship, he added.

For landowners, working with DUC is straightforward, said Russ Muenchrath, Wheatland County’s manager of agriculture and environment, who had a partially drained wetland on his property restored. “It was just a really easy process,” he said. “It’s a matter of coming to an agreement on price and then getting the payments. They did all the work and contacted me the whole way through.”

Sean Feagan, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times