Tools to restore wetlands

We need to talk to you, the landowners, to really understand the cost of restoring wetlands,” said Dr. Peter Boxall, Chair, Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology at University of Alberta (U of A), at the launch of an innovative research program in Rocky View County, Alberta.

According to Boxall, the major objective of the project is to identify the real cost of wetland restoration and to use that restoration to reach other social environmental goals, such as flood damage reduction, increased biodiversity and water quality improvements.

Rocky View County landowners are being asked to participate in an experiment in restoring wetlands at the landscape scale.  Specifically it’s the landowners in the Nose Creek watershed just north of Calgary that U of A researchers want to work with.

Decades of landscape modification have resulted in significant loss of wetlands in the Nose Creek watershed. In the distant past the loss happened with no attempt at mitigation. However society values are changing and the understanding of the importance of wetlands is increasing.

The Nose Creek watershed was chosen for two major reasons. First, the multitude of development issues facing Alberta are all found in this small watershed. The land uses include farming and ranching, country residential, and a rapidly expanding urban area in the city of Airdrie and down stream in Calgary.

The second major reason is the desire to directly measure the benefits of wetland restoration, such as flood protection and nutrient abatement, on local landowners and downstream communities. If successful, this approach to securing wetland restoration sites could be utilized by provincial Wetland Restoration Agents, such as Ducks Unlimited and City of Calgary, who are two of only a handful of organizations permitted to accept compensation money under the Alberta wetland policy.

Driving the need to gain a clear understanding of the cost of restoration is provincial wetland policy requiring compensation and mitigation for wetland modification. So, for example, a developer first applies for a permit to drain or fill a wetland.  If the permit is issued then payment is made to a wetland restoration agency in-lieu of restoring or constructing a wetland. At present, the availability of wetland restoration sites on private land is a major barrier to spending wetland compensation money.

This research project called Alberta’s Living Laboratory Project determined that an important component is the two way communication between the researchers and the landowners. At the project launch the conversation began about the true cost of restoring a wetland in an area becoming increasingly desirable for development.  Immediate lost revenue is one consideration. Implications to resale value in the distant future are very difficult to calculate and so hard to factor into compensation values.

However there is a possibility having wetlands in the area or on the property will increase the value of the land. In some situations wetlands are determined to be a desirable environmental amenity.  

These variables are precisely why the U of A researchers want to take theory and turn it into practice on the ground with landowners who are in different situations with wetlands that are varied and unique.  

“The use of a reverse auction system is the chosen market-based tool for this project.  It allows land owners to price these sorts of considerations into their bids. Then, the value of the bids inform the true cost of wetlands restoration. The cost reflects the on-the-ground realities people working on the land will be able to identify. Realities perhaps not immediately obvious to people who don’t live there,” says Boxall.

The project is the buyer and is soliciting multiple bids for the restoration of wetland service similar to someone asking for bids on a kitchen renovation.

Here’s the basics of how the reverse auction will work:

Landowners in the Nose Creek watershed of Rocky View County will submit bids for what they consider to be fair compensation to have a wetland restored on their land.

The research team will compare bids based on cost and environmental significance in the spring of 2016.

Bids with the lowest cost and highest environmental significance will be selected.

In the fall of 2016 cash payments will be made and the following year work will begin to restore that wetland on the bidders land.

Dr. Shari Clare, biologist and adjunct Professor, Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology, UofA, says, “Participation in this project is completely voluntary, but landowners need to understand that once the wetland is restored, it will be considered a water body under the Alberta Water Act. This means that the wetland will be managed under the provincial wetland policy and the landowner will have to apply for a permit if they ever want to remove it in the future”.

“We really don’t have a very good understanding of the amount of wetlands lost in this watershed, or throughout the province”, says Clare.  “Some studies suggest as much as 70 per cent of wetlands have been lost in agriculturally developed areas of the province.  Many of the wetlands that remain are ephemeral/temporary wetlands, and the social perception is that these wetlands are less important or valuable. The reality is that these more temporary wetlands have very high ecological value to early arriving migratory birds,” says Clare.

One role of this project is to have conversations about how to best communicate this kind of land management information. Another is to encourage land owners to help regulators to understand how to fairly price the ecosystem services provided.  Society is just beginning to fully understand the value of wetlands and starting to quantify the benefits of wetlands.  There are no historical prices to draw on for paying for ecosystem services. This project will provide a template for establishing a system for that.

This project is managed through the Alberta Land Institute at U of A.  By facilitating an interdisciplinary approach to wetland restoration the project will provide more information than has been previously available.  That information will help land owners, developers and municipalities understand the new Alberta Wetlands Policy going into effect this year.

The researchers are still looking for landowners in the Nose Creek Watershed in Rocky View County to participate in the project.  Contact them at www.restoreourwetlands.ca or email questions to wetlands@ualberta.ca

By Peggy Strankman