We know how wetlands play a critical role in maintaining the health of Canada’s environment and our economy. We’ve learned how wetlands filter our water, removing nutrients that cause blue-green algae blooms. How they store carbon. How they provide important habitat for hundreds of plant and animal species. How they create recreation and learning opportunities. How they make our lives better.
Across Canada, as more people realize the value of wetlands, there’s a groundswell of support to conserve them.
In the massive Lake Winnipeg watershed, encompassing parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and four northern U.S. states, change is afoot. Students, rural landowners, urbanites, researchers and governments are all learning how wetlands contribute to their watershed’s overall health. And they are taking action. Here are some of their stories.
Janine Paly and her young family look at sustainability as a way to decrease their footprint on the environment and make a living.
The young Edmonton-area cattle rancher, mother and Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) agronomist, protects watershed health by implementing beneficial management practices.
“Our farm is on marginal land and we keep it in pasture and hay, but have a five- to six-year crop rotation by including a cereal. This helps increase the production of our land and control weeds,” says Paly.
Paly also helps to protect the watershed by fencing off dugouts and installing watering systems for their livestock.
She promotes watershed health through her day job with DUC, too. “Our winter wheat program is a good example of how agriculture works with conservation to promote an environmentally friendly crop option for farmers,” says Paly. “It’s a profitable crop, plus, if we can increase the acreage of winter wheat in western Canada, we can also increase the waterfowl populations. It’s a win-win.”
Paly hopes her on-farm ethics transfer to her daughter, Annabelle. She would be the fifth generation to do so.
“I believe it’s important to demonstrate to her that there’s more to farming than a return on investment. It’s important to keep water healthy. Not every acre needs to be turned over and not every tree needs to be cut down. By keeping these areas you can still be profitable.”
Rancher Gary Meadows and his wife, Lesley, of Blackie, Alta., understand all too well the damage that flooding can do. Their cow/calf operation spans along the Foothills and into the prairies. During recent years, they have lost fencing, grassland for grazing, and main cattle trails from washouts.
In addition to the hard monetary costs of rebuilding and replacing, the time needed for the land to recover also takes a toll. It is for this reason that Gary and Lesley are committed to integrating conservation practices as part of their farming operation. They’ve taken steps to restore and conserve wetlands. They use rotational grazing and cropping schedules with their tame forages, and they let their herd graze on native grassland pastures when the time of year is right. They also keep an eye on riparian areas and change cattle watering sites to lessen the impact on sensitive areas.
Their actions are resulting in a slough of benefits.
“Water quality has improved and the land surrounding wetlands has also become more productive,” says Gary. “The amount of wildlife that has come back is also great to see. During times when moisture levels are high, the wetlands help absorb the excess water.”
Having a conservation approach will help the Meadows sustain and keep their cow/cattle operation going for the next generation. And there’s a good reason to view it as a long-term investment. The land on which Gary and Lesley base their farming operation was homesteaded by Gary’s great-grandfather in 1895 – in fact, they live in the very house that his great-grandfather built more than a century ago.
“Our motivation to conserve is seeing the impact of having water in areas that haven’t been great in the past,” says Meadows. “Bringing wetlands back to where they should be will produce more for our operation, and will contribute to the overall health of the land. It takes water to make water.”
Pascal Badiou, a research scientist with DUC’s Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research (IWWR), hopes the third time’s the charm.
It’s mid-April, just a month since his research crew set up at 15 monitoring sites as part of the IWWR’s Camrose Creek Watershed Research project. They’re monitoring stream flow and collecting water quality samples at the project located in Alberta’s parkland region.
“We’re already seeing tons of water quality data coming out from the spring melt,” says Badiou.
This marks the first year of the three-year project. Badiou chose the Camrose Creek watershed because it’s almost an identical environment for the research he’s already conducted at the Smith Creek and Broughton’s Creek watersheds in Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
Like those watersheds, Camrose Creek “is representative of trends we see across the Prairie ecoregion as a whole,” says Badiou, referring to wetland drainage and intensive cropland production in the area as examples. They can also monitor a large managed marsh project at this site, which adds a new dimension to the research.
The researchers will take the cumulative results of this and the other two studies and scale them up to encompass the Prairies. The information will be invaluable for industry, governments and watershed managers tasked with solving major environmental issues. It will also help stakeholders calculate the environmental and economic implications of wetland drainage and restoration. With the implementation phase of the new Alberta Wetland Policy being launched this spring, this research will be invaluable to the Government of Alberta in setting wetland management and restoration objectives.
“We’ll be better able to identify important areas of nutrient export and target the best areas for wetland conservation and restoration,” says Badiou.
For Badiou, it’s important to show that, unlike Vegas, what happens here doesn’t stay here.
“Regardless of where you are in the larger watershed, wetland drainage can impact you – even if you live thousands of kilometres away.”
Boil water advisories. Spring floods. Droughts. Pollution. Any one of these scenarios can be a fact of life for people living on the Prairies.
But it doesn’t have to be, if one group has anything to say about it. In Saskatchewan’s Assiniboine River Watershed, 90 per cent of residents rely on clean groundwater resources, including the cities of Yorkton and Melville. Protecting these healthy source waters, as well as water quantity, is the Assiniboine Watershed Stewardship Association’s (AWSA) mission.
AWSA’s keys to success include education, awareness and communication with all members of the watershed community. The non-profit, community-driven organization encourages participation in programs like the Agri-Environment Group Plan, which encourages producers to include beneficial management practices – like forage conversion – in their operations to reduce negative impacts on soil, water, air and biodiversity.
AWSA also offers wetland enhancement and restoration programs, which have helped restore more than 300 acres (121 hectares) of wetlands since 2009.
AWSA’s manager Aron Hershmiller believes that overall watershed management practices are a responsibility for all people of Saskatchewan.
“What we are able to do upstream to assist in protecting water sources and infrastructure downstream is something that should be on all residents’ minds. We are all able to make positive changes when we manage our water as an entire system, and are proactive and environmentally conscious in our choices.”
The boreal forest’s important role within a larger watershed is often overlooked.
That’s surprising considering that approximately 70 per cent of Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg basin is in the boreal forest. And that the boreal’s trees, rivers, lakes and wetlands purify water and air, contribute to flood and erosion control, moderate climate change, and support many species of wildlife.
The spotlight on the boreal forest was shining as bright as northern Manitoba’s winter sun in February. That’s when First Nations, government officials, industry leaders and conservation groups met on Opaskwayak Cree Nation territory in The Pas for the province’s first boreal summit.
“What was clearly heard during the summit is northerners want to play a key role in developing a boreal plan that balances conservation and sustainable development,” says Chris Smith, DUC’s head of boreal conservation.
The meeting came on the heels of a poll by the Winnipeg-based International Institute of Sustainable Development (IISD) that shows 88 per cent of Manitobans favour protecting at least half the province’s boreal forest.
“It’s heartening to hear that Manitobans are aware and want a high degree of protection,” says Dr. Hank Venema, chief scientist at IISD. “We were pleasantly surprised with how much Manitobans identified with the boreal and the extent to which they understood the ecosystem benefits that it provided.”
The poll found that their support crossed partisan and ideological lines.
“Regardless of political orientation, the sense that a large fraction of the boreal – at least 50 per cent – should be protected is a shared value,” says Venema. “Manitoba has a chance to really raise the bar on what large-scale sustainable development looks like. We’ve got a public that’s aware of the issues and interest from all political parties – and the whole world is watching.”
Manitobans have first-hand experience with watershed disasters.
Flooding in southwestern Manitoba and blue-green algae blooms on Lake Winnipeg happen, in part, because of upstream activity.
The goal of new drainage regulations proposed last June by the Government of Manitoba is to conserve wetlands and the benefits they provide. Public consultation was open to the end of 2014. People who commented on the proposed regulations sent a clear message that wetlands must be protected.
If enacted, the new drainage regulations will benefit landowners, communities and producers who suffer the effects of severe weather extremes such as floods and drought.
DUC’s research has shown that wetland conservation is an important step toward stopping, and eventually reversing, water-related problems on the prairies. When it comes to policy, the devil is often in the details and DUC is working hard to ensure the new regulations are effective.
Water quality is top of mind in Lockport, Man. The community is on the Red River, about 30 kilometres from Lake Winnipeg. Residents here must live with whatever happens upstream.
Kailey Evans, a local Grade 12 student, wanted young people in the area to know more about their watershed. With the help of two teachers, she developed a plan to transform a dugout into a wetland. The program became part of an existing outdoor classroom at Lockport School.
“For the project, we had to write a proposal that was submitted to the Caring for our Watersheds competition,” says Evans. The competition was created by Agrium, an agricultural products and services company, and is administered through the Oak Hammock Marsh Interpretive Centre.
Evans envisioned a hands-on learning environment. Students would learn about nature and the watershed with activities like net-dipping for bugs and water quality sampling.
“It makes a huge difference in the students’ awareness about the problems with the environment,” says Evans. “It also makes them aware that there is such a thing as the outdoors. Most people in this modern day are spending all their time inside.”
Evans presented her proposal to a panel of judges, and she won 2nd place. The prize money provided most of the funds needed to complete the dugout conversion in 2014. Now, the new wetland plays host to young critter-dippers and hopefully, future conservationists.
Communities and industries across Canada continually face the challenge of maintaining good water quality, managing waste and restoring natural habitats.
Niverville, Man., has embraced a new and natural approach to this challenge. The prairie town of 3,500 partnered with DUC’s Native Plant Solutions to decommission a municipal sewage lagoon. The site was cleaned up using native plants to remove contaminants. This bioremediation project is the first of its kind in North America, earning the partnership a 2014 Manitoba Excellence in Sustainability Award for Innovation and Research for Sustainability.
The bioremediation project in Niverville was one-quarter to half the cost of traditional approaches. Research results from the project show significant declines in total nitrogen and phosphorus concentrations in the first few years alone.
“I hope the project becomes a lasting legacy,” says Jim Buys, Niverville’s chief administrative officer. “A legacy that will challenge future generations to take a path least travelled, to think outside the conventional parameters that society has established and try to find creative alternatives that will have a lasting positive impact on our environment.”
Niverville hopes to reopen the former sewage lagoon as a birdwatching area and an interpretive site for school groups and residents.
Native Plant Solutions has launched a new website to share its environmental services and leading-edge habitat management techniques with the world. Visit nativeplantsolutions.ca for information on this and other watershed-friendly projects.