What’s it worth? New project aims to nail down the value of wetlands

Innovative new project features a reverse auction in which producers ‘bid’ on the compensation they’d want for giving up acres

overhead map of a watershed
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Wetlands often present a difficult choice for producers — keep them for their environmental value or drain them for the sake of the bottom line.

Until recently, converting wetlands to croppable land was commonplace, and even encouraged by government projects that paid farmers to drain them.

Wetlands advocates know it will take compensation to reverse that trend. But how much money does it take to convince farmers and other landowners to restore drained wetlands?

Shari Clare
Shari Clare photo: Supplied

“I can’t go on Kijiji and discover the value of an acre of wetlands,” said Shari Clare, an ecologist and adjunct professor in the University of Alberta’s resource economics department. “This reverse auction will help us do that.”

A reverse auction is at the heart of a new project in the Nose Creek watershed in Rocky View County just north of Calgary. Landowners will be given an assessment of the value of their dried wetlands and, if they want to participate, they’ll make a ‘bid’ — how much they would want to be paid if the land was restored and taken out of crop production.

“We will be accepting bids early in 2016 and will be selecting winning bids by March,” said Clare. “The restoration of wetlands for those winning bidders would happen in the fall of 2016.”

The cheapest bids won’t necessarily be accepted, as the value of the wetland is also factored in. The criteria for determining ‘the best’ wetlands is based on four factors: biodiversity, water quality improvement, water storage, and carbon sequestration.

“When we get the bid we’re going to look at the environment benefit score and compare the price people are asking for,” said Clare. “It’s the most efficient use of our budget to buy the wetlands with the highest environmental benefit score for the lowest price.”

Mixed reaction

Grower sentiment towards wetlands projects in Rocky View County is “mixed,” largely due to controversy over delayed grazing commitments over the past several decades, said Tim Dietzler, agricultural fieldman for Rocky View County.

The project launch in March featured a simulated reverse auction — and revealed a wide range of perspectives among attending producers.

“Among the 20 people who were there, the bids ranged from 30 to 50 per cent above the going rate of rental land in the area to zero — there were a couple of individuals really interested in having wetlands on their land,” said Dietzler.

person working near a marsh
The Nose Creek watershed project is aimed at creating a new model for wetland restoration, says Shari Clare, shown here conducting a wetland fish survey using minnow traps. photo: Shari Clare

Bob Janzen, a producer who lambs out 70 ewes on his 100-acre farm north of Cochrane, attended the launch. Although his land is outside of the project boundaries, he said if he had the opportunity to participate he probably would.

“The way they were doing it sounded very interesting to me,” said Janzen. “My goal would not be so much restoring wetlands as trapping water.

“We have several springs on our property, a fair bit of lowland. I’d like to build a little bit of a dam and hold some of that water to maintain some water year round on the property.”

Interested landowners will be given help to identify all of the costs involved in restoring their wetlands, including long-term profit loss if the landowner deems it necessary.

“We want landowners to consider everything when formulating their bids because we really want them to come out of this process feeling like they’ve been treated fairly,” said Clare.

‘Kicking the tires’

If the project achieves the hoped-for results, it could be a model for other wetland restoration efforts.

One of the project partners, the Alberta Land Institute (an affiliate of the University of Alberta), wants to evaluate the effectiveness of what it calls “market-based instruments.”

“(The data we collect) could be used to help inform the development of other market-based instruments for the management of other important ecosystems, like native grasslands for example,” said Clare. “We’re kicking the tires on the effectiveness of using market-based instruments as policy instruments to manage environmental resources in Alberta.”

Project partners will be talking to landowners in the Nose Creek watershed this summer and recruiting individuals to participate, she said.

They will also be emphasizing that the goal isn’t to buy land and participating landowners will retain the access rights to their restored wetlands.

“Once restored, the wetland will be regulated under the provincial wetland policy, as well as the Water Act and Public Lands Act, where applicable,” she said.

The project has attracted a number of sponsors including the U of A, University of Western Ontario, Alberta Innovates Bio Solutions, Rocky View County, the City of Calgary and Ducks Unlimited. The money to repair the wetlands comes from the provincial wetland compensation fund.

It’s part of a larger effort called Alberta’s Living Laboratory Project and in many ways that is exactly what the watershed will become in the context of this experiment.

“The Nose Creek watershed experiences a wide range of land use pressures,” said Clare. “We’re trying to learn as much as we can about what drives (wetland management) decisions and working in a watershed where we have intensive agricultural operations, ranches, acreages, and urban development gives us a large number of uses.

“If we were to run this study in a watershed where there was only ag production we would come out with less understanding of what people are willing to accept as payment for wetlands.

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