[Note: The following was first published in the August 2017 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2017 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.
During the recent discussions about returning catch-and-keep fishing to some of our Alberta lakes, the issues of loss of habitat and water quality came up. Although the Alberta government likes to blame its catch-and-release policy on too many anglers chasing too few fish, in reality loss of habitat plays as big or bigger a role.
In lakes and streams habitat and water quality go hand-in-hand. If habitat is poor, chances are the water quality is also poor in terms of increased nutrients (e.g., phosphorus, nitrogen), cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) blooms and low oxygen, etc. The water quality of a lake is largely determined by the quality of the water entering that lake. If that water passes over disturbed land, it will carry silt and dissolved nutrients into the lake, silting-in fish habitat and increasing the lake water’s nutrient load. On the other hand, if the water passes through well-vegetated areas, where sediment is filtered out and the plants take up nutrients, less sediment and nutrients enter the lake.
However, if the overland water enters a wetland prior to going to a stream or lake, the quality of the water entering that water body can very much improve. So, what are wetlands? According to Wetlands Alberta (www.wetlandsalberta.ca), “Wetlands are low-lying areas of land covered by water long enough to support aquatic plants and wildlife for part of their life cycle.” Their diverse communities of plants and animals provide many services to the environment that includes water filtration and storage, ground water recharging, carbon sequestration, and habitat for a host of plants and wildlife species that contribute to the biodiversity of a landscape.
The problem is that over the decades many wetlands have been drained and covered over to increase agricultural production or make way for development. Many people considered wetlands to be “wastelands” that should be drained and put into “useful service,” not realizing the services the wetlands were already providing. This has been especially true around our recreational lakes, where cottage and other development have destroyed or seriously impaired many wetlands. As we’ve learned the limits of our resources, the value of wetlands is finally being factored into decisions about land use. Alberta’s Water Act, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, and the Public Lands Act protect wetlands on both public and private land. If someone wishes to drain or otherwise alter a wetland, they must contact the appropriate authorities. The problem has been that many landholders don’t realize their responsibility and have altered their wetlands (or sometimes crown wetlands) without obtaining the required approvals. Although the violator might be charged, the damage is done.
Wetlands Alberta (a partnership of Alberta Environment and Parks, Ducks Unlimited Canada and the North American Waterfowl Management Plan Partnership) recognizes five types of wetlands divided into two broad classifications: peatlands and non-peatlands. Peatlands are found most often in northern Alberta and parts of the parkland, foothills and mountains. Non-peatlands are found mostly in the prairies and parkland regions.
About 20% of the surface area of Alberta is covered by wetlands and over 90% of these are peatlands. Peat is partially decomposed organic vegetation whose decomposition has slowed or stopped because of lack of oxygen. As a result, the peat accumulates over the years. Many peatlands have existed for thousands of years and are one of the most important carbon sinks, where carbon is stored and not released back into the atmosphere.
Bogs are peat-covered wetlands where the surface water is acidic as a result of decaying plant material and poor drainage. Shrubs and sphagnum mosses are the main vegetation types overlying the peat. However, some bogs may support trees, such as black spruce and tamarack.
Fens are peatlands fed by flowing ground water. The water is basic (high pH) as opposed to the acid conditions found in bogs. Fen vegetation tends to be dominated by sedges but may also include trees and shrubs.
Potholes, ponds and standing water along rivers and lakeshores are classified as Shallow Open-water Ponds. These are usually small bodies of standing or flowing water, ringed with cattails and other emergent vegetation. Some may represent the stage of a lake transforming into a marsh.
Marshes are wetlands that are permanently or occasionally covered by slow moving or standing water. Rich in nutrients, marshes support a variety of cattails, rushes, reeds and sedges because water remains in the root zone of these plants most of the growing season.
Found in both peatlands and non-peatlands, swamps are low-lying pieces of land that are flooded either seasonally or for long periods of time and contain shrubs and trees that prefer moist conditions. They are nutrient rich and productive in terms of supporting many plant and animal species.
Value of Wetlands to Lakes and Streams
Clean water is important for fish, wildlife and people. Wetlands clean water by slowing it down, allowing silt and other suspended solids to drop out, and by filtering it—passing the water through a filter of mosses, peat, soil and plant roots. The roots extract nutrients from the water.
Wetlands reduce the effects of drought by storing water and providing sources of water for wildlife and livestock. They also recharge groundwater by passing some of the stored water into aquifers. By storing runoff water and slowly releasing it, wetlands reduce the effects of flooding.
Anyone who has ever visited a wetland will realize their value in providing habitats for a variety of wildlife, from beavers, muskrats, waterfowl and perching birds to frogs, toads, fish and insects, just to name a few. Wetland communities are diverse and complex. Many other animals from the surrounding uplands frequent wetlands to find food, water, and relief from the summer heat, including moose, deer, foxes, weasels and mink.
As in the forests and fields that surround them, wetland vegetation sequesters carbon by taking carbon dioxide from the air, storing the carbon in the plants and eventually in the soil and peat. This valuable service helps slow global warming and climate change. Indeed, our warming climate will be the biggest threat to the viability of our lakes and streams over the next decades.
In 2012 the Alberta government released its Wetland Policy (www.wetlandpolicy.ca) in which the government outlined the importance of protecting wetlands and how that should be accomplished. Not an easy task given the various demands for resources and development on both crown and private lands, and the various jurisdictions that are involved in regulating land development. As with all policies and legislation, the Wetland Policy is not much good unless it’s acted upon and enforced.
At the Wabamun Watershed Management Council, we’ve seen several examples of altered or abused wetlands around Wabamun Lake. Most of these are the result of people not knowing the rules and the consequences of the damage they do. But why don’t they know? Mainly because our provincial and municipal governments fail to inform people of these rules, especially when they apply for permits to build or clear land. Many people still believe wetlands are wastelands and that they should be filled in, especially on their own land. However, land ownership comes with certain responsibilities, including being a steward of that land and ensuring the quality of the water that passes through it.
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