Wetlands are among the most valuable natural systems on earth. Lac Ste. Anne County is fortunate to have an abundance of fresh water resources to support a variety of lifestyles, recreational pursuits, agriculture and industrial opportunities. Wetlands also provide a reprieve from the hustle and bustle of city life for our seasonal residents. Lac Ste. Anne County recognize the importance that wetlands provide on the landscape, as well as the benefits to humans, wildlife, biodiversity, and the environment as a whole. Wetland are vested in the Crown in right of Alberta, therefore owned by the province and subject to the Alberta wetland policy.
Alberta Wetland Policy
The goal of the Alberta Wetland Policy is to conserve, restore, protect, and manage Alberta’s wetlands for the benefit of the people who live and work in Alberta, and the environment. Wetlands are a key component of the Alberta landscape providing wildlife habitat and important nesting and rearing ground for migratory waterfowl, air creation and purification, water storage and filtration, and recreational opportunities like hunting, fishing and bird watching. Alberta has lost two thirds of its wetlands to human development and land use changes. The Alberta Wetland Policy was released in 2013 with the intention of slowing wetland loss and restoring wetlands on the landscape.
This policy aims to identify wetland importance based on form, function, use and distribution. This includes the capacity of the wetland to; support biodiversity, positively impact water quality, reduce flooding, promote human uses as well as relative abundance of surrounding wetlands. For more information on assessing wetlands in Alberta, Click Here. This is important because the province will try to replace wetlands where losses have been high. This policy will utilize a hierarchy of “Avoid, Minimize, or Replace” when reviewing applications that may disturb a wetland. More information about the valuation of wetlands can be found Here.
Why Do Wetlands Matter?
Wetlands provide tremendous benefits to human beings and nature. These benefits can be called ecosystem Goods and Services and are essential to our survival. Wetlands generate air while sequestering carbon, grow food and fiber for human use, medicinal plants, genetic diversity and materials, and provide habitat. One of the best things wetlands do is filter surface and ground water. Wetlands, especially ones with organic and clay-based soils, have significant adsorption capacities. This means that pollutants and contaminants can be pulled out of the water and adsorbed on to clay surface particles, therefore removing them from the waterways. Some clays (specifically kaolinite and montmorillonite) are known for the abilities to pull heavy metals from water and store them2. These metals (arsenic, cadmium, chromium, copper, cobalt, iron, lead, manganese, nickel, and zinc) can become toxic to human, animal and plant life. This removal of metals can reduce costs to filter the water down stream, as well as increase the health of our ecosystems overall.
How do wetlands help farmers?
Approximately 31% (or 52 million acres) of land is farmed in Alberta, most of which is privately owned3. This puts farmers in the very best position to manage area around the wetlands, as well and able to reap the benefits these wetlands provide. Wetland improve soil moisture and water retention, alleviate compaction, retain nutrients on the fields, and can reduce soil erosion. According to the Water Act, farmers are legally allowed to pull water from a waterbody for the purposes of watering livestock and applying pesticide to their crops as a part of their farm water management plan and within the rules of the Pesticide Regulation. Farmers are active stewards of the land and can implement Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs) to minimise their industries impact. Lac Ste. Anne is excited to have many farmers with environmental farm plans, sustainability awards, and follow the best practices to help the environment.
How are wetlands Identified?
Wetlands can be difficult to identify as they change from year to year, depending on precipitation and water cycles. Just because an area is dry, that does not mean it is not a wetland. Wetlands are defined as:
The Delineation Directive requires a comprehensive investigation to define the boundaries and all other aspects of the wetland. This includes a thorough overview of historical aerial photos, climate data, and field assessments. Field assessments search for water tolerant vegetation like peat moss, willows, cattails, and bulrushes. Soil assessments, looking for mottling, gleying, or a build up of organic matter are usually present in wetlands1.
Wetland work must be overviewed by an Authenticating Professional; which is an individual with a professional science-based designation and in good standing within their professional organizations. These include professional: engineers, geoscientists, agrologists, biologists, chemists, forester, landscape architects, planners, or land surveyors. If the waterbody or wetland is or could be fish bearing, a Qualified Aquatic Environmental Specialist must be consulted. If the stream is proven to be fish bearing, there is significant legislation to align with.
Lac Ste. Anne County
Lac Ste. Anne holds a remarkable range of wetland types and features. There is approximately 45,000 ha (over a hundred thousand acres) of wetlands within Lac Ste. Anne County, representing about 15% of the land base. Most of these wetlands are classified as swamp land; which are mineral wetlands with water levels near, at or above the ground surface for variable periods during the year and contains mostly tree and shrub cover. Most of these wetlands are on private property (however still owned by the province), with very few wetlands occurring on municipal land. During subdivision, Lac Ste. Anne County will often put an Environmental Reserve (ER) on wetland to protect them from development into the future. Lac Ste. Anne County also participates in the Alternative Land Use Services program, which is a grant program designed to help farmers implement Beneficial Management Practices (BMPs) on private land. We also have a full-time conservation/horticulture coordinator and many citizen science groups that are passionate about conservation in Lac Ste. Anne County. We work closely with stewardship groups to encourage conservation and preservation of natural ecosystems in Lac Ste. Anne.
Who Owns the Wetland?
The Public Lands Act decrees the ownership of all wetland all waterbodies in Alberta to the provincial government. The title of the bed and shores of all permanent and naturally occurring bodes of water; including rivers, streams, watercourse and lakes is vested in the Crown and is therefore not owned by the landowner who owns the adjacent land. (Public Lands Act Section 2.01.3(1)a,b. page 11). A landowner or manager does not have the right to impact or make any changes to the wetland or body of water without a licence, permit, code of practice or approval from the provincial government.
The Water Act is provincial legislation that lays the groundwork for conservation and sustainable management of water in Alberta. This piece of legislation defines anything that could impact water resources as an “activity”. An activity is anything that could impact the ground, vegetation or water in or around a wetland. This includes placing, constructing, operating, maintaining, removing or disturbing the soil or plants adjacent to or in a wetland. Dredging, trenching, tile drainage, weed removal, sand dumping, plowing, back filling, or tree clearing could all be considered an activity under the Provincial Water Act. Anything that has the capacity to alter the flow or water level (temporarily or permanently), change the water flow direction, or could introduce new material into a wetland (such as silt) requires a Water Act approval. Any activities done without approvals or permits are considered non-compliant. For permit information, Look Here for more information on activities that require an Approval from the province.
What Happens if Someone Drains a Wetland on Their Property Without Authorization?
Because wetlands are owned by the province and are considered a public good, no single entity or individual has the right to alter or destroy them. If a person, company, or organization chooses to disturb a wetland without a permit or licence, they can be penalized under the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Public Lands Act, the Climate Change and Emissions Management Act, and/or the Water Act.
If you are concerned about activities taking place that may affect a waterbody or wetland, you can call the Energy & Environmental Response Line at 1.800.222.6514 (toll free in Alberta).
Consequences of Conducting an “Activity” Without Authorization
If there is no prior history of non-compliance and the infraction is minor and easily corrected the person, company, or organization will receive a written warning letter. This is usually the case when the individual or organization did not know that they were not allowed to do the activity they were doing and are willing to correct the activity.
The objective of an order is to restore the impacted land to what it was before the activity took place. These are corrective in nature and are meant to bring awareness and repair the affected land. These may or may not include a financial penalty and can be amended several times to achieve the desired outcome.
Administrative penalties financially penalize the offender in order to deter future activities. In 2018, over $2.4 million dollars was issued under Alberta legislation. These can include a creative sentencing component where the offending party must pay into research, technology, or other initiatives decided by a judge or court.
A person, company, or organization that has illegally impacted a wetland or waterbody can be prosecuted in a court under Alberta legislation (Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Public Lands Act). These often include fines or creative sentencing components, and can include long term consequences such as being prohibited to own/work in management in the area of which the offence took place. It is up to the individual, company, or organization to align with all applicable legislation, and have all approvals and licences in place before undertaking any activity that could impact a wetland or waterbody.
Lac Ste. Anne County is home to a wide variety of people, domestic and wild animals, threatened and special concern species, plants, and wetlands. Geographically, we are also and important corridor to the north for people and migratory animals just passing through. Lac Ste. Anne County’s greatest asset is our farming community, who have been, and continue to be caretakers of the land and waterways and are essential to our vibrant community. We strive to take care of our natural resources and the ecosystem goods and services they provide, for now and for future generations.
1 AWP. Alberta Wetland Policy. 2013. Alberta Environment and Parks. Online at: http://aep.alberta.ca/water/programs-and-services/wetlands/alberta-wetland-policy-implementation.aspx. Accessed on September 10, 2019.
2 Bhattacharyya, Krishna G. and Susmita S. Gupta. 2018. Adsorption of a few heavy metals on natural and modified kaolinite and montmorillonite: a review. Advances in Colloid and Interface Science 140(2008) 114 – 131.
3 Statistics Canada. 2006. Census of Agriculture count 49,431 farms in Alberta. Archived content. Online at https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/ca-ra2006/analysis-analyses/alberta-eng.htm. Accessed on September 10, 2019.