Environment Minister Diana McQueen announces a new wetlands policy at the Clifford E Lee Nature Sanctuary near Edmonton, September 10, 2013.
Photograph by: Bruce Edwards , Edmonton Journal
Wetlands — including bogs, fens and marshes — are everywhere, covering 20 per cent of the province. While it might be difficult for you to get worked up about a swamp, the reality is wetlands play a crucial role in our province’s ecosystem. They’re important to all of Albertans, whether you’re a city slicker or a duck.
In a report released this week outlining the province’s new wetland protection policy, the government waxes almost poetic about the value of these soggy sanctuaries: “They provide flood mitigation by storing and slowly releasing large volumes of surficial run-off. They function as natural filtration systems, cleansing surface waters prior to discharge.
“In many instances, wetlands are groundwater recharge zones, acting as conduits between (surface) water sources and aquifers beneath the ground. They support a diverse array of flora and fauna. In Alberta alone, it is estimated that wetlands are host to some 400 species of plants, some of which are listed as rare, threatened or endangered in the province.”
Peat bogs are also nature’s original carbon sequestration sites, helping to absorb and lock in carbon emissions that would otherwise make their way into the atmosphere.
Despite the importance of the wetlands, the government didn’t have an overall protection plan and, when it came to northeastern Alberta, home to the oilsands industry, there was not wetlands policy at all.
The government knew it needed a new policy. The problem is the government came to that conclusion eight years ago. And it has taken until now to come up with a new plan.
Eight years. About the same amount of time it took NASA to figure out how to send a man to the moon.
The difference is NASA actually reached its goal.
By comparison, Alberta’s new wetland policy is still in lower Earth orbit.
The government has released a plan that won’t take effect for another two years and even then exempts every existing, or proposed, oilsands project.
Moving forward, the government will rank the environmental importance of individual wetland areas and put a priority on those deemed to be of a “high value.”
Companies will be required to minimize their impact on a wetland. But if they have no choice but to destroy the habitat, they will have to pay compensation by, for example, building a wetland somewhere else or by putting money into an education fund which will, according to the government, ensure “Albertans appreciate the value and importance of wetlands to the environment and human health.”
In other words, the companies destroying the wetland will be paying into a fund to educate us about the importance of the wetland they just evaporated.
Not surprisingly, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers likes the new policy, saying it brings a balanced approach to “environmental priorities.”
Also not surprisingly, environmental groups are upset, saying the new policy is too little, too late to protect wetlands from projects already underway or in the planning stages.
But not this time with wetlands. “These multi-decade projects will not be subject to better standards,” said Carolyn Campbell of the Alberta Wilderness Association.
“That’s inconsistent and appalling stewardship.”
Now, before we take up torches and pitchforks to storm the environment minister’s office, keep in mind that when it comes to destroying wetlands, none of us is innocent.
In the past century we collectively have drained, disturbed, plowed under and paved over about two-thirds of the original bogs, fens and marshes in Alberta. Nowadays, we have a greater appreciation of the importance of wetlands. Actually, the government has known for years.
A 2008 report by the Water Council of Alberta, the province’s 24-member advisory body on water issues which includes Ducks Unlimited and the Alberta Forest Products Association, recommended a “no net loss” policy on wetlands, meaning if a development destroys a wetland, a new wetland of an equal value must be created somewhere else.
However, two members of the council — the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers and the Alberta Chamber of Resources — disagreed, saying the cost involved would reach into the billions of dollars.
That’s why the government came up with a policy that makes reclamation an option, not a requirement. Consequently, the government has opened itself up once again to accusations it is caving in to the oil companies.
You might not think twice about bogs and swamps but if the government wants to convince the world it deserves a social licence to exploit the oilsands, it really should have given the wetlands a second thought.