The restoration of Laycock Park in northeast Calgary has begun, but the wetlands in that area will not be touched.

In 2007, a proposal was developed by the City of Calgary, aimed at restoring the wetlands along Nose Creek in Laycock Park.

The city’s Wetland Conservation Plan had been approved three years earlier, setting aside money from destructive development projects to put towards wetland reconstruction. With the impact of urbanization leaving Nose Creek a little worse for wear, Layock Park seemed a natural candidate for a wetland restoration project.

Fast forward to 2016, and the park improvements are underway with a new playground already installed. Despite earlier intentions, the creek won’t be restored any time soon.

Doug Marter, manager of capital planning and infrastructure with Calgary Parks, says the old bridge over Nose Creek in Laycock Park is on the list of repairs as the current bridge is no longer serviceable. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela

So what happened?

Doug Marter, manager of capital planning and infrastructure with Calgary Parks, has been in charge of this project since the get go. Marter says that while it started out as a wetland restoration initiative, that part of the plan was eventually scrapped.

“There were just too many obstacles for us to try to overcome with the province so we just abandoned the idea,” Marter says.

While exploring the feasibility of the plan after the original concept was presented, Calgary Parks discovered that past uses of the surrounding land made for a much more costly fix.

According to Tim Walls, wetland and capital planning supervisor with the City of Calgary, the contamination in the area was most likely due to the land’s past use as a gravel pit.

An evaluation of the soil found that there were above average traces of sulphate, slightly higher pH levels and dissolved metals such as arsenic, manganese, sodium, uranium and copper. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were also found in the soil but Walls says these are commonly found in urban settings as a result of vehicle exhaust and smoke.

The Government of Alberta has guidelines on allowable contamination levels and though the Laycock Park levels did not exceed the threshold, they still posed a considerable risk to the watershed.

“Our environmental experts reviewed the concentrations and concluded, while these contaminants don’t represent a significant source of risk to human health, capping the site as we have done allows for better conditions for plant and vegetation, and reduces the risk of contaminants being flushed into the creek,” says Walls.

Nose Creek is an important wetland in the Calgary watershed but due to contamination in the soil around Laycock Park, apparently due to a former gravel pit in the area, the city isn’t going to restore the creek. However, they are currently exploring the possibility of restoring other parts of Nose Creek in Rocky View County. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela

He adds that opening up the soil would run the risk of contaminating the water and potentially spreading that contamination further.

However, though the creek isn’t being restored, Calgary Parks is still taking steps to protect the fragile watershed from future damage.

Plan B

With limited options left, Calgary Parks is working to protect the riparian area along Nose Creek, the land directly adjacent to the water.

Marter explains the pathways are all being widened, resurfaced and most importantly realigned, saying that it will create “a buffer area between the pathway and Nose Creek to minimize and disturbance in the riparian area.”

The project also includes new landscaping and planting in this zone to help slow erosion and improve the overall health of the creek.

Originally, the reconstruction would have slowed down the water flow to improve overall creek health, these steps are important to reduce some of the impacts of urbanization on this wetland.

The creek wasn’t the only thing that needed some work however, and Calgary Parks are still following through with other aspects of the plan.

According to Marter, a new playground has been installed and a new basketball hoop and playing surface will be added to go along with the pre-existing baseball fields.

Along with that, the bridge that crosses Nose Creek is being rebuilt because Marter says the current one is no longer serviceable. A sanitary sewer and storm water outfall will also be added to the park.

Marter says that these changes will make the space much more useable.

“There will be more amenities, more playgrounds, more facilities for children and youth,” Marter says. “For adults that want to go down with their kids and just want an area to sit and enjoy the park with their children, they’ll have more ability to do that.”

The city is spending around $700,000 on this project and Marter expects work to be finished by the fall of 2017.

As construction continues, different areas of the park will be cordoned off but Marter says the facility will still be available for use throughout. Laycock Park, named after the Laycock family that homesteaded in the area before Alberta was even a province, is situated near Deerfoot Trail and 64th Avenue N.E.

Calgary’s Wetland Conservation Plan

As the cancelled Laycock Park restoration project was one of the first identified by the Wetland Conservation Plan, Calgary’s conservation efforts have been called into question.

In 2007, when the project was in the works, there was some concern raised at an open house that the city was not doing enough to protect and conserve wetlands.

According to the City of Calgary website, prior to the Wetland Conservation Plan, “it is estimated that 90 per cent of the pre-settlement wetlands in Calgary have been lost to development,” while city expansion could impact another 8,000 wetlands.

Marter agrees this is a valid concern, but he argues the city is taking big steps to make up for the loss of wetlands.

“We were one of the first municipalities [in Canada] that had a municipal Wetland Conservation Plan,” Marter says. “It was my group that actually worked on that but the problem with wetlands is that the city is not the sole authority.”

Walls says that in 2014, the province adopted a wetland policy so the city is working on realigning their plan with the province’s.

He adds, however, that the city maintains a no-net loss policy while the province does not.

“We have three different tiers within that. There’s avoiding any impact to a wetland, mitigating and restoring any impacts that are to a particular wetland and then finally, compensating for the wetland and rebuilding a wetland elsewhere.”

Though Calgary infrastructure projects aim to avoid impacts on wetlands, that doesn’t always happen.

Under the hierarchy of wetland compensation, the proponents of development must pay money as compensation for the loss which is then used to restore or rebuild wetlands as close to their original site as possible. This means the money is redistributed to other wetland compensation projects in or around the city.

If no work can be done near the site, a larger catchment area is considered, then a bigger watershed scale and finally, a basin scale.

So far, the Wetland Conservation Plan has completed one project, though none within the city. This was a partner project with Olds College, restoring a 20-acre wetland on the campus.

“The opportunity for doing work at Olds College is not really within our watershed,” says Walls.

“But it was an opportunity to kind of get our feet wet to work on a wetland restoration where there were education purposes and to help us figure out the mechanics of how we can move money to these projects.”

The new playground was installed in Laycock Park in early 2016 and was the first part of the plan to be completed. Photo by Jolene Rudisuela

Currently, the city has two more restorations on the go. The Canmore Park Wetland Restoration project, in northwest Calgary, is still in the feasibility stages but Walls hopes the studies will be wrapped up by year’s end.

For the other, the city is partnering with Rocky View County, Ducks Unlimited and the University of Alberta to restore the Nose Creek watershed surrounding Calgary in a project called Alberta’s Living Laboratory.

While Calgary’s wetland conservation plan is gaining traction, the importance of wetlands cannot be understated.

“In the Calgary area, we’re in a really important part in North America for wetlands,” says Walls. “It’s one of the more significant migratory bird corridors who rely on wetlands to support their life.”

Walls says wetlands also provide other services such as filtering the water and creating a sponge effect – absorbing and releasing water over a longer period of time. Wetlands are also critical habitats for many plants, mammals, birds, amphibians and insects.

Walls says the City of Calgary’s conservation steps will go a long way to saving these precious ecosystems.

jrudisuela@cjournal.ca

The editor for this piece is Bigoa Machar and can be reached at bmachar@cjournal.ca