Conservation of Existing Natural Spaces: Wetland Protection

Wetlands are areas of land that are saturated with water for part or all of the year. They contain unique types of plants and soil, and support an amazing variety of wildlife. The types of wetlands found in Alberta include marshes (e.g., sloughs), shallow ponds, bogs (e.g., muskeg), fens and swamps. Wetlands provide society with numerous beneficial ecosystem services, including water filtration, groundwater recharge, flood and drought mitigation, biodiversity, fish spawning habitat, erosion control, climate moderation, carbon sequestration and wildlife viewing opportunities. These services, in turn, have many social and economic benefits.

Recommended Practices

  • Wetland protection, conservation and restoration efforts are required to ensure that the valuable ecological services provided by wetlands are maintained.
  • Engage multiple departments of local government and stakeholders
    • Strathcona County, a leader in wetland protection, includes the following areas of government in a collaborative process: Planning and Development Services (land development, planning, engineering, permitting, environmental planning, land management), Family and Community Services, Transit, Emergency Services, Utilities, Transportation Planning and Engineering, Recreation, Parks and Culture, Transportation and Agriculture Services and Economic Development and Tourism.
    • Engage developers, land owners and organizations offering expertise, such as Ducks Unlimited Canada
  • Science-informed decision-making process
    • Strathcona County uses a hierarchy of planning and policy documents to guide decision-making on wetland protection: Environmental Framework, Municipal Development Plan, Conservation and Biodiversity Policy, Biophysical Assessment Directive, and the Wetland Conservation Directive.
    • Having a clear process for wetland conservation ensures that there are no surprises for stakeholders and that multiple departments are involved.
  • Take a landscape approach and identify priorities before individual decisions
    • Prioritize natural areas (avoid, minimize disturbance and replace where required)
    • Wetlands designated as environmental reserves
    • Uplands designated as municipal reserves
    • Opportunities for smaller “urbanized” lots that ensure increased conservation
  • Tools that can be used by municipalities for enhancing wetland conservation include:
    • Conservation easements held by qualified organizations (i.e., land trusts) (link to Conservation Easements chapter)
    • Wetland protection requirements (via Environmental Reserve, Municipal Reserves – see additional information in Riparian Setbacks chapter - link)
    • Tax credits for private landowners
    • Voluntary stewardship practices
    • Grants for wetland restoration
    • Density bonusing for conservation of existing wetlands (link to Density Bonusing chapter)
    • Transfer of development credits (link to Transfer of Development Credits, Conservation Easements & Land Trusts chapter)
    • Alberta’s Wetland Policy (2013) goal is to “conserve, restore, protect and manage Alberta’s wetlands to sustain the benefits they provide to the environment, society and the economy.”[1] The policy aims to apply a regional context to the conservation and protection of wetlands deemed to be of highest value.
      • Guidelines under Alberta’s 2013 Wetland Policy[2] include :
        • Avoid or minimize loss or degradation of wetlands.
        • Replace wetland value where necessary.
        • Take a place-based approach, considering local environmental, economic, and social factors in wetland valuation. (The Policy is intended to provide clear guidelines at the provincial level, with flexibility in its application.)
        • Build effective tools, knowledge and capacity.
        • Encourage conservation of wetlands and voluntary stewardship.

Project Considerations

In addition to Alberta’s Wetland Policy, municipalities and developers in Alberta can leverage various tools to conserve and protect wetlands. Under the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP), both wetland and upland conservation and restoration are used in addition to protecting these areas through conservation easements (link) and land acquisition.[3] Land can also be designated a Natural Area or Ecological Reserve to ensure wetland protection. A federal program allows for Ecological Gifts of sensitive land to be donated by landowners (private or corporate) in exchange for tax benefits.[4] Finally, municipalities in Alberta can create bylaws under the Municipal Government Act to protect wetlands and prevent development.[5]

The Business Side

The cost for wetland replacement programs can be high. Avoidance and minimization of impacts are strongly encouraged before considering wetland replacement in Alberta. According to the Government of Alberta’s Wetland Mitigation Directive, the price per hectare to replace wetlands is valued between $10,300 and $19,400.[6]    

Intact wetlands provide flood attenuation and can therefore prevent damage to property and infrastructure in severe weather events. In the case of too little precipitation, wetlands help recharge groundwater aquifers and can help mitigate the impacts of drought conditions and water scarcity. Healthy wetlands also act as natural filtration systems and can save municipalities money on stormwater and wastewater treatment.

The Nature Side

Wetlands provide a wide variety of ecological benefits, including supporting rich biodiversity, and wildlife and fish habitat. They are a nutrient source for ecosystems and provide many ecosystem services that benefit humans. Healthy wetlands prevent erosion along shorelines, sequester carbon from the atmosphere, moderate climate, reduce flooding by slowing the flow of water and reduce drought by recharging groundwater, and provide valuable water filtration, removing sediments, heavy metals, and chemical contaminants.

The Community Side

Healthy wetlands can add aesthetic value to neighbourhoods as well as recreational opportunities such as birdwatching and other wildlife viewing. They help to moderate temperature in cities, mitigating the urban heat island effect. Wetlands also provide educational opportunities for children and adults alike. Access to natural spaces such as wetlands has a positive impact on human health and a positive effect on real estate value and marketability.

[1 & 2] Government of Alberta. 2013. Wetland Policy. Government of Alberta.

[3 & 4] Wetlands Alberta. n.d. Tools for wetland protection. Wetlands Alberta.

[5] Province of Alberta. 2021. Municipal Government Act. Alberta Queen’s Printer.

[6] Government of Alberta. 2018. Wetland Mitigation Directive. Government of Alberta.

Government of Alberta. 2013. Wetland Policy. Government of Alberta.

Government of Alberta. 2021. Wetland Policy Implementation Tools: Wetland replacement. Government of Alberta.

Province of Alberta. 2021. Municipal Government Act. Alberta Queen’s Printer.

Thrasher-Haug, Jocelyn, Strathcona County. July 15, 2021. Email to Land Stewardship Centre.

Wetlands Alberta. n.d. Tools for wetland protection. Wetlands Alberta.