Everything is nature has a purpose, so the saying goes. So what about places where you can’t venture without rubber boots, gloves, or bug spray? Surely we don’t need those mucky, swampy wetlands that abound across Alberta. They’re stinky, mushy, and not always suitable for camping, picnics and boating.
While they may not be on the recreational radar screen, wetlands are critically important and we should all love them very much. They’re vital to the sustainability of our ecosystems and the province’s biodiversity.
Northern Alberta’s oil sands region is full of bogs and fens, while central and southern Alberta has marshes, ponds and swamps. Experts estimate the peat wetlands in northern Alberta are home to more than 100 plant species.
Ecosystem services provided
According to Water Matters, a non-government organization focused on watershed issues in Alberta, these plants are crucial, given their strong work ethic. They store, purify and supply our freshwater, filtering out phosphorus and nitrogen (used in fertilizers) and treating polluted water by absorbing heavy metals. They can also act as carbon banks, isolating billions of tonnes of carbon, not to mention supporting a huge range of wildlife.
One of the consequences of oil sands development is that it requires some wetland disturbance. Industry is obligated to reclaim any disturbed land – including wetlands - to a state comparable to nature.
Understandably, stakeholders are concerned about development’s impact on wetlands. Some researchers, for example, assert that disturbances will hamper carbon storing. They also question industry’s ability to reclaim disturbed areas, pointing out that areas which were once low-lying wetlands often become upland forests, resulting in a loss of carbon-storing fens.
Industry has made progress in reclaiming wetlands to sustainable landscapes. In fact, restoration is happening all the time. Suncor, for example, is using new technologies to help meet its targeted 100% increase in land area reclaimed by 2015 (as compared to 2007).
We are also working with Canadian universities on a research project to look at recreating fen wetlands in areas impacted by our mining. There’s even a small wetland on our Wapisiw Lookout, the first tailings pond with a surface solid enough to be actively re-vegetated and reclaimed.
Other operators are making progress too. Syncrude’s 104-hectare Gateway Hill South Bison Hills, which in 2008 earned the company the first provincial reclamation certificate in the oil sands includes a wetland area called Bill’s Lake.
The oil sands industry recognizes the unique role wetlands play in our environment. While we can’t match the original when it comes to restoring disturbed wetlands, we can try to create new ones, continue work to lessen our footprint, and reclaim impacted areas much quicker.