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Implementation of Alberta’s New Wetland Policy Underway (PCN Summer 2015) JUL 2 2015 | Consumers and Producers | Pulse Crop News

This article appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Pulse Crop News.

Sharon McKinnon, CSWG Policy Program Coordinator

The Crop Sector Working Group (CSWG) continues to be involved in a number of agri-environmental issues on behalf of the Alberta crop commissions. Given the research focus of this issue of Pulse Crop News, this is a good opportunity to discuss an interesting Alberta research initiative with both agricultural and environmental aspects and impacts.

The new Alberta Wetland Policy was implemented in the settled or White Area of the province as of June 1, 2015 and in the Green Area – public lands – next year. Under the new policy, wetlands impacted by urban and industrial development will need to be avoided if possible, minimally impacted or replaced with new wetlands of equal or better functional value (the mitigation hierarchy).

Farmland is a primary target for restoration in the White Area because much of it has been drained in the past and restoration is relatively straightforward where drainage structures are in place. Ducks Unlimited has a lot of experience restoring wetlands on private farmland and wetland restoration on private land is, and will continue to be, voluntary.

The problem is, there are too few landowners willing to take land out of production to restore wetlands because of the longterm loss of production, the inconvenience of farming around wetlands, and inadequate compensation. As well, under the new policy, demand for restoration sites will be greater with the higher standards for restoring wetland value.

A very interesting research project has recently kicked off through the Alberta Land Institute (ALI), an independent research institute housed at the University of Alberta. Alberta’s Living Laboratory Wetlands Project is a multiyear research initiative that will be looking at both the science and economics of wetland restoration in Alberta. The study area is the Nose Creek sub-watershed in Rocky View County and part of north Calgary where urban development, rural residential, oil and gas, and farms and ranches are all competing for land and where many wetlands have been drained.

The science part of the project involves determining appropriate sites for restoration, restoring the wetlands and then monitoring them over a number of years. The researchers want to know if the restored wetlands are as good as undisturbed wetlands in terms of their functions like biodiversity, flood protection and water quality improvement. Quantifying the ecological values of the restored wetlands will help determine their functional value and thus, how well they will meet mitigation requirements.

The economics part of the project involves figuring out the real cost of restoring wetlands. A critical component of that is determining a fair system of incentives to encourage landowners to restore wetlands on their crop or pasture land. The research team will use a market-based instrument called a reverse auction to help determine the most economically efficient way to achieve the restoration goals within a limited project budget.

In a reverse auction, landowners (the sellers) are asked to submit bids on the amount of compensation they would need to have a wetland restored on their property. The researchers (the buyer) would look at the bids and determine how to get the most bang – restored wetlands – for their limited budget. Then the team will carry out the restoration on the selected land and monitor the health and functions of those wetlands.

With an unlimited budget, the team would likely find all kinds of willing landowner partners to restore many wetlands and the province might be inundated with wetlands. In the real world, budgets are limited and achieving wetland restoration goals in an economically efficient and scientifically effective manner is necessary.

There are still a couple of big questions in the wetland story. For this project, the team has a source of research funds to pay compensation to landowners. In Alberta, the government expects industry and developers – those impacting wetlands – to pay for restoration. Fair enough. However, a few government sponsored pilot wetlands in areas of particular need would be a valuable kick-start considering the public value of wetlands for biodiversity and flood control, among other things.

A bigger question is around the specific goals for wetland conservation and replacement. How many wetlands is enough? What level of wetland function in the province does the government want to restore? Alberta’s Living Laboratory Wetlands Research Project will be practical, on the ground research within a working landscape with conflicting land-use interests that will provide valuable input to the wetland implementation plan for the whole province. Those bigger questions will need further research and consideration.

Sharon McKinnon is the Crop Sector Working Group Policy Program Coordinator. The Crop Sector Working Group is the crop industry group focused on agri-environmental industry issues. Alberta Pulse Growers is a member organization, along with Alberta Canola Producers Commission, Alberta Barley Commission, Alberta Wheat Commission, Alberta Potato Growers, Alberta Sugar Beet Growers, and Alberta Oat, Rye and Triticale Association.