“We’ve already lost 63 per cent of the wetlands in the settled area of the province. We don’t want that to happen up north as well.”
The Alberta government has committed to its Water for Life strategy – that Albertans have access to safe and secure drinking water, healthy aquatic ecosystems and reliable, sustainable water supplies for a sustainable economy. The advisory group the government created to guide its water strategy has delivered simple policy recommendations, but with the legislature almost ready for its summer break, there’s no sign of regulations.
Healthy wetlands are crucial to meeting the Water for Life goals, and 23 of 25 stakeholder group representatives, along with 80 to 90 per cent of the more than 1,000 people who expressed their views to the Wetlands Working Group, are in favour of strong and effective regulations to conserve wetlands throughout Alberta.
The Alberta Water Council, a non-profit society of 24 government, industry and NGO members with experience and expertise in water matters, was set up by the province to guide it in implementing its water strategy. The AWC forwarded its recommendations to Environment Minister Rob Renner last September.
The Wetlands Policy Project Team worked diligently for three years to develop policy recommendations that met the concerns of all the groups involved.
“I am very proud of all that we accomplished,” says Jonathan Thompson, senior research biologist with Ducks Unlimited Canada, who chaired the group. “Our consensus on the recommendations weren’t achieved overnight. We had two major rounds of consultation and considered extensive input from stakeholders. Over three years of discussions we worked hard to address everyone’s concerns and we have produced the best possible product, given the variety of stakeholder interests in wetlands.”
Petroleum industry withdraws
The recommendations of the wetlands team include strategies such as building knowledge and capacity through partnerships and encouraging voluntary stewardship. At the heart of the recommendations is that the government require developers to follow avoid loss or degradation of wetlands. If this cannot be achieved, the loss or degradation must be minimized, and, as a last resort, compensate for wetland degradation or loss by science-based restoration of former wetlands or creation of new ones.
At the end of the working group’s deliberations, all the members compromised and accepted the complete recommendations on wetlands. But, when the document was sent to the Water Council for forwarding to the government, the petroleum producers and the mining companies withdrew their support for parts of the recommendations. They still supported most of the document, but they asked that the word “may” be inserted into the decision framework. Mitigation of damage or loss of wetlands would then be at the discretion of a regulator.
The miners and petroleum producers expressed concern that replacing wetlands destroyed in exploiting the oil sands of northern Alberta would be expensive, possibly costing as much as $1 billion.
Forests are wetlands
Thompson understands these concerns, but offers a different perspective. “Northern Alberta is a very important part of the world for a lot of us,” he says. “The Fort McMurray area is very different from the prairie with its potholes and marshes. It has a very large proportion of wetlands on peaty, high-organic matter soils. These wetlands
can often look like forest, but they’re really green, vegetated rivers that feed our northern lakes and rivers.”
Thompson says these wetlands are particularly important to maintaining the health of the Peace-Athabasca delta in northeastern Alberta – one of the world’s largest inland deltas – and ultimately even the Mackenzie Delta in the Northwest Territories.
“Boreal wetlands are extremely important to wildlife and they’re even more important to maintaining water supply and quality in the north. They are integral to all three goals of the Water for Life strategy,” Thompson says.
The aboriginal people of northern Alberta have depended on the wetlands for millennia. If the wetlands are damaged or converted into dry uplands, cultures that are thousands of years old will vanish. The wetlands of northern Alberta support many thousands of waterfowl
and other birds and wildlife. The majority of whooping cranes in the world depend on the integrity of the Peace-Athabasca delta.
“We’ve already lost 63 per cent of the wetlands in the settled area of the province,” says Thompson. “We don’t want that to happen up north as well.”
In its response to the oil and mining companies, the Wetlands Policy Team noted that other stakeholders had compromised to achieve consensus on their recommendations. They also allowed for a great deal of flexibility in the location of compensatory wetland development. They did not feel they could compromise further.
The mandates of both the Environment Minister and the Minister of Energy require them to ensure that Alberta’s energy resources be exploited in a sustainable way, which the Wetland Policy would clearly help support. This leads to the question of why hasn’t the Government of Alberta released and begun implementing this important policy?
Minister Renner’s office referred Alberta Farmer’s enquiries about the policy to his communications department, which had no timeline for implementation of the recommendations of the Wetlands Team. In late May, however, he said the Legislature that “We have an abundance of wetlands in this province and we have a policy in place that is currently in practice to protect those wetlands and to ensure that they stay there.”
“I hope the government will implement the recommendations we made with input from a majority of stakeholders,” says Thompson. “These are public lands and the public is losing. The question is, what legacy do we want to leave our children?”