Making it better when it is wetter — and when it’s dry, too

Ducks Unlimited has two wetlands restoration programs drawing on $31 million in provincial funding

Whether floods in 2013 or drought this year, extreme weather has taken its toll on producers throughout Alberta in recent years.

The good news is Mother Nature can help with that.

And the provincial government is also chipping in, with $31 million in funding over three years to encourage farmers and other rural landowners to restore wetlands and fish habitats destroyed before or after the 2013 flood. These funds, part of the Watershed Resiliency and Restoration program, come from $600 million the province pledged earlier this year for flood mitigation.

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The funding is being channelled through two programs administered by Ducks Unlimited Canada — the 10-year lease program and the Revolving Land Purchase program.

Barry and Charmaine Ronsko, who raise cattle east of Camrose, have partnered with Ducks Unlimited at various times over the past 15 years. While there are many benefits to reclaiming wetlands and riparian areas, the biggest one comes down to the way these locations build up reserves of water for dry seasons and absorb water in times of excess moisture, they said.

“You always need water when you have cattle and it’s a worry when there isn’t any, especially in a dry year,” said Barry Ronsko. “It gives you a bit of a reserve if you have a drought and you have that wetland the cattle can go into and graze.”

How it works

Both programs compensate landowners. The 10-year lease program offers annual payments based on current fair market value for Ducks Unlimited to restore a wetland area on a farm. The organization also pays for all of the restoration costs associated with the leased area while the landowner continues to graze or hay and otherwise manage the restored area.

Under the Revolving Land Purchase program, Ducks Unlimited buys land, restores the wetland and upland habitat, and then sells it with a conservation easement on the land title. The easement allows uses such as haying and grazing, but prevents the breaking, cultivating or development of wetlands for uses that are not permitted.

“Proceeds of the land sale are then used to fund more restoration projects,” said Cathy MacKenzie, communications specialist with Alberta Ducks Unlimited Canada.

The most eligible properties for these two programs are within high-capability waterfowl production areas, including wetlands and uplands.

The benefits

Working with Ducks Unlimited was not a difficult decision for the Ronskos, who restored one of their quarters of land.

“It fit into our program and it wasn’t going to hurt us as far as we were concerned — we could still use the land,” said Barry Ronsko. “The way it worked out is the wetland areas control the water better now. In the spring, it builds up the soil, while before we would sometimes get flooded out. It just seems to be managed a lot better and seems to be working out for us.”

“This year, despite the drought, we had a lot of reserve in our water table,” added Charmaine Ronsko. “The dugout stays full.”

Their wetlands have also made a big difference in terms of wildlife, helping keep deer and moose away from adjacent cropland.

Although grain farmers are sometimes reluctant to take crop acres out of production in order to reclaim wetlands, Barry said they are beneficial for keeping wildlife out of fields and grain storage.

“Eventually if all this land gets broke there’ll be no place for wildlife to go so they become kind of a nuisance,” he said.

There are also benefits in a simply esthetic sense, said Charmaine.

“It provides a place for the ducks to come and migrate. It’s kind of nice to see them flying around.”

The Ronskos also bought 320 acres of land reclaimed by Ducks Unlimited as part of the Revolving Land Purchase program.

“We purchased it with no hesitation,” said Barry. “The price was a little lower so it gave us an alternative to buying more expensive cropland.”

They also like the fact there are no restrictions on putting cattle on the wetlands.

“It just can’t be broke or drained for as long as the land is here,” said Charmaine. “Even when we’re gone it will stay in its natural state. It’s kind of reassuring to know there will still be some nature left.”

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