PUBLISHED: 23 September 2013

Alberta’s New Wetland Policy: Review by Jay White

The Province of Alberta has been operating under a draft wetland policy for the white zone (the lower third of the Province) for the past 20 years since draft policy was created for white zone wetlands and a discussion paper created for green zone wetlands. Many of us have been patiently waiting for a comprehensive policy that addresses all of the wetlands in Alberta, and on September 10, 2013 our wish was granted by Environment Minister Diana McQueen.

The biggest bombshell in the new comprehensive policy is the removal of the no-net loss provisions and philosophy contained within the previous draft policy. The current policy simply does not allow for an increase in wetland area in the province, nor does it address past losses. The removal is essentially an admission of our failure as a Province to even come close to meeting the objectives of no net loss. And, with losses of up to 70% of our white zone (prairie pothole) wetlands in the south, over 300,000 hectares of wetlands in the oil sands and over 90% loss of wetlands in major urban centres, it is hard to argue with trying to continue to giving lip service to the no net loss principles of avoid, minimize and compensate.

With the removal of no-net loss and the area-based approach comes a new approach of protecting wetland function. Our new hierarcy will be avoid, minimize and “replace”.  We will no longer be replacing wetlands on a 3:1 basis for restoration, instead we will replace wetlands on a sliding scale from 8 – 0.125 : 1 based on functionality. However, after many years of funding, researchers from the University of Alberta and University of Western Ontario have not landed on any sort of meaningful measurement for wetland functionality. The current policy now must have this figured out and operational by August 2014—less than one year from now. There is some hope for a functional tool being piloted in the South Saskatchewan basin by an American researcher, but it is currently limited to marsh type wetlands in the southern part of the Province. A functional tool for peatlands is completely lacking, and that will need to be created and in place by August 2015.  As well, only “permanent” wetland losses need to be compensated for—which will need to be established during the Approval process. For example, a 25-year operating wellsite will not require compensation if it is scheduled to be reclaimed following completion.   

This current policy still leaves the department with little meaningful mechanisms to say “no” to developments that occur on sensitive or high-value wetlands either by denying Approvals or making compensation economically unfeasible. Such an approach backfired in the City of Calgary where developers were happy to pay for actual land values as part of City’s private compensation program, leaving administration with millions of dollars to spend on restoration, but no lands to do it on.

There is still hope that public pressure on the government along with constructive criticism received by Albertans will help strengthen the implementation of the new Wetland Policy. How a policy is implemented is often far more important than the ideas within it.

Other thoughtful reviews of this policy have been released by several other environmental groups. I encourage people to learn more about this new wetland policy. For additional information please visit www.albertawetlands.ca.

Jay White is the principle researcher and CEO of Aquality Environmental Consulting Ltd. He is a certified Alberta Professional Biologist and Qualified Wetland Aquatic Environment Specialist.


For some additional views on the new wetlands policies please see the following editorials. Please contact us if you feel we have missed an editorial, or would like to provide one of your own. 

Alberta’s New Wetland Policy Gives a Pass to Tar Sands Industry, Ignores Climate Change by Daniele Driotsch

Calgary’s Manhattan Moment by Andrew Nikiforuk

McQueen reveals ‘watered down’ wetlands policy by Stephen Ewart