Land-Use Planning for Watershed Health: Can Alberta’s Land-Use Framework Help?

Managing the cumulative effects of land-use change is necessary for keeping our watersheds healthy. The problem is that there are few incentives for land-use decision makers to address cumulative effects in land-use planning at a regional or watershed scale (i.e., beyond municipal boundaries). Furthermore, there is no legislation in Alberta that mandates the use of cumulative effects based thresholds or limits in land-use planning. But the province’s Land-use Framework (LUF) could help.

Under the LUF land use ‘thresholds’ could be set based on the capacity of watersheds to naturally provide ecological goods and services such as drinking water sources, flood mitigation, and groundwater recharge. In other words, planning for land-use change that fits within the ecological capacity of a watershed. This type of threshold based approach to land-use planning could become a powerful tool for protecting watershed health.

Extensive removal of topsoil and vegetation, disruption or destruction of natural drainage channels, and replacement of pervious surfaces (grass, trees) with impervious surfaces (concrete, asphalt, roofs) can impact the natural mechanisms within a watershed that provide invaluable goods and services. Over time, the cumulative effects of land-use change can push these natural mechanisms beyond their carrying capacity reducing watershed health.

Traditional, man-made or ‘pipes and pumps’ infrastructure has been the primary mechanism for water and wastewater treatment and management. While this type of infrastructure is vital for managing our water supplies and keeping pollutants out of our waterways, it is extremely expensive.

Canada’s municipal infrastructure deficit is $123 billion. The current deficit related to water supply, wastewater and stormwater systems stands at $31 billion for the existing capital stock, while new needs are estimated at $56.6 billion.

What many people don’t know is that applying principles of ‘ecological infrastructure’ to set thresholds and limitations for land use change can create opportunities to mitigate cumulative effects of development activity on watershed health and reduce infrastructure costs by using natural landscape systems to manage the water and wastewater needs.

For example, using a regional land-use planning approach that sets land use thresholds based on watershed protection and capacity could be beneficial in areas like the Eastern Slopes, which is an important source water zone in southern Alberta, and in the expanding municipalities of Okotoks, Strathmore, and Cochrane, where projected growth is expected to exceed the existing licensed water allocations in the next 5 to 20 years.

Pipes and Pumps Infrastructure:
Technical, engineered structures that support societies needs, such as water and wastewater treatment and management. Examples include drinking water treatment plants, sewer lines, drinking water distribution lines, and storage facilities.

Ecological Infrastructure:
The network of spatial interactions within a landscape (e.g., wetlands, riparian areas) that are responsible for the production of ecological goods and services (e.g., water treatment, flood mitigation).

The Government of Alberta’s Land-use Framework (LUF) has the potential to implement and support this type of threshold-based approach to land-use planning.

Released in May 2008, the Draft LUF “provides a blueprint for land-use management and decision-making that addresses Alberta’s growth pressures.”

One of the six strategies within the Draft LUF states that: “Cumulative effects management will be the instrument used at the regional level to manage the impacts of development on land, water and air.” The Draft LUF recognizes that our watersheds, airsheds, and landscapes have a finite carrying capacity and that managing activities so that carrying capacity is not exceeded is necessary. The Draft LUF also indicates that the Government of Alberta will develop a process to identify appropriate thresholds at regional levels and where appropriate at local levels. Land-use planning will operate within these defined thresholds.

Under the LUF the province will be divided into six planning regions based on major watersheds. Each region will have its own Regional Plan. In addition to having regional and possibly local-level thresholds, the Regional Plans will also be backed by Legislation. Meaning the thresholds could be binding on all land-use decision making within a region.

LUF implementation will begin in December 2008 with the release of the government’s final policy and implementation plan and the launch of the Northeast Alberta Regional Plan.

The LUF could open the door for threshold-based land-use planning that protects watershed health, and also municipal pocketbooks. An approach that saves watersheds and money…it’s possible.

For more information on the environmental community’s perspectives on the LUF visit:

Who is Water Matters?

Officially launched May 2008, Water Matters is a not-for-profit, charitable organization that informs citizens of watershed issues and strives to advance progressive policy solutions to Alberta’s complex water resource challenges. For more information please visit: