Over the last few weeks, water quality issues have been surfacing throughout Alberta. Some lakes, most recently Pigeon Lake, are being negatively affected by algae blooms, which has placed them under algae advisories. This greatly harms summer recreational activities that normally take place at these lakes, can be lethal to fish stocks and could even start influencing property values on the affected lakes.
The questions on everyone’s minds are — why is this happening and how can it be stopped?
Some blame the water quality issues on development, farm run-off, sewage run-off and dropping water levels. But, what you might not know is that wetlands, including marshes and ponds, play a significant role in the water quality of our lakes and rivers.
Historically, intact natural wetlands on the landscape intercepted, filtered and absorbed contaminants and excess nutrients before they reached our rivers and lakes. Unfortunately, we have lost a great deal of these effective water filters. In the settled area of Alberta, we have lost two-thirds of our wetlands due to drainage and infilling. This is significant, and even more disconcerting is that loss continues at a rate of one-half of one per cent each year in Alberta. Across Canada we lose 45 football fields worth of wetlands every day.
When wetlands are drained, it results in an increase of water flowing off of the land and with that water goes excess nutrients, sediment, pesticides and pathogens, which contribute to decreasing water quality in our lakes and rivers. Phosphorous is one of the key contributors to algae formation. Wetland loss has greatly contributed to the movement of phosphorous from Alberta’s watersheds, contributing to the algae blooms that Alberta is currently experiencing.
Protecting and restoring wetlands doesn’t mean farmers can’t continue farming and developers can’t continue developing, in fact it would help mitigate the impacts of future economic development. We recognize farmers need to use fertilizers to produce food to feed our growing population and developers need land so our province can continue to grow and prosper. However, adding acres of farmland or houses at the expense of key assets in the watershed like wetlands is not a sustainable way to move forward.
It all comes down to balance and managing the impacts of growth. It isn’t just about wetlands — it is about water. We should all care about the water quality of our lakes and rivers, and the good news is that we can do something about it. Given the historical evidence and research that Ducks Unlimited Canada and others have been gathering for nearly 75 years, an effective and proven solution is clear — wetland conservation and restoration may be one of the most effective ways to protect the quality and quantity of water in our lakes and rivers.
The Government of Alberta is now in the process of developing a new provincial wetland policy. If Alberta develops and implements a wetland policy that effectively stops further wetland loss and facilitates a level of restoration where losses have occurred, we would be a significant step closer to addressing the water quality issues we’re seeing today in Alberta’s lakes and rivers. It would also put important ecosystems back on the landscape.
We have an opportunity to make a real difference in Alberta right now to address these issues. All we need to do is act. By supporting a provincial wetland policy that includes those two outcomes, our province’s water quality and quantity would be much more secure for future generations.
manager of provincial operations in Alberta,
Ducks Unlimited Canada