Harsh weather and human disturbances affecting province’s natural areas

In a province known for vast economic growth, protecting and conserving the wetlands and the habitats they provide Alberta is a tedious task.

The wetlands we see in Alberta consist of marshes, swamps and any other ground or surface water retaining areas that act as buffers from excess or deficient water from runoff, absorbing or releasing over time.

The record-breaking flood of 2013 caused serious issues with both water quality and quantity in the area. Not only was the amount of water more than the banks of the Bow could handle, but it was more than the city’s water treatment plant could handle as well.

According to Sean Nichols, conservation specialist with the Alberta Wilderness Association, if upstream wetlands had been in better shape, flooding in Cochrane and Calgary wouldn’t have been as serious.

“It’s all about the Ghost Reservoir. As it is upstream from and flowing into the Bow, the reservoir faces many issues caused by human disturbances in wetlands (mostly logging),” Nichols said.

These disturbances cause silt and dirt to flow downstream, causing issues with filtration on the municipal level.

“Less space for water means the reservoir may not release water at appropriate times and could potentially fill to capacity,” Nichols said.

“When you look at our headwater areas upstream from Calgary in the mountains and alpine areas, logging a slope is going to disrupt vegetative systems. The slopes act as a moderating factor that filters that water from high rainfall and heavy snowpacks. Without the vegetation to act as a buffer the balance would be off and municipalities could suffer.”

Part of Nichols’ position at AWA involves holding big corporations responsible for their ecological footprint. He says that more needs to be done on the ground level to ensure wetlands are getting the protection they need before it is too late.

One of the things that Nichols was advocating for was in-depth compartment assessments, most of which, he explains, are done at the very beginning of the job.The Ghost lake dam and reservoir on the Morley First Nations reserve west of Cochrane acts as one of the Bow Rivers biggest contributors. Upstream wetland degradation threatens the integrity of the reservoir and water quality in downstream municipalities like Calgary.

Photo courtesy of Alberta Wildlife.

“But they may not log an area for 20 years, yet there will be no assessment of what has changed [in the environment] since then,” said Nichols.

“What really would need to happen is some kind of hydrological assessment on a smaller scale and on a more timely schedule, not immediately before a 25 year project,” he said.

In Calgary, natural and manufactured wetlands in Fish Creek Park act as a secondary buffer system in the event of a flood but they can only do so much.

Jill Sawyer, regional communications officer for Alberta Parks, says that with Calgary’s booming residential development, Fish Creek’s wetlands are needed to prevent water from backing up into neighbourhoods.

“It also helps to manage the water systems within the park so that when you do have a major storm or flooding like we had in 2013, it helps to reduce the amount of water that is running immediately into the Bow River.”

Sawyer added that the artificial wetlands work just as hard as natural ones and can secure the future integrity of the area.

“After the flooding in 2005, when so much damage was done along Fish Creek, there was a lot of re-vegetation that was done right along the creek,” Sawyer said.

The process of planting various types of vegetation improves the effectiveness of wetlands, explains Sawyer.

There are measures in place to protect these wetlands such as quality and integrity assessments but Nichols thinks the province’s ‘new’ policy — updated September 2013 — has its faults, saying that they were disappointed with the policy.

“The ESRD (Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development) did bring in a wetland policy that quite frankly was pretty lacking and full of nice sounding language, but when it actually came to implementing anything specific the only things it implemented were very broad.” Nichols said.

The 27-page Alberta Wetlands Policy maintains that their foremost goal is to protect the integrity of the province’s wetlands by “avoiding, minimizing and, if necessary, replacing lost wetland value,” it states.

They determine the value of each wetland by giving it ratings on form, function, use and distribution. The policy states that their biggest priority is protecting those wetlands that have the highest value overall which are headwaters mainly in valleys surrounding mountains and contain glacial runoff.

Nichols adds that in the case of another flood, Calgary theoretically has sufficient resources for now.

“There has probably not been an impact yet but if you increase the human disturbance to those headwaters it would.”

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