By Judy Stewart
Several prevailing wetland myths permeate the draft Cochrane Wetland Conservation Policy. These myths drive the policy direction and administration’s implementation strategy. Over the next few weeks, these myths will be unpacked. First, the myth that wetlands exist in isolation from their geology, hydrology, vegetation, biodiversity and adjacent riparian lands is built into the title: Wetland Conservation Policy. Wetlands do not exist or function in isolation from the complexes in which they are situated, or the riparian lands that surround them. Wetlands rarely exist in isolation, especially not the knob and kettle, aka “prairie pothole” wetlands that were left behind 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. The policy ought to recognize the interconnections and interdependencies of wetlands as geopolitical land locations where water is present at different times of the year; the interdependence of all wetlands in a complex; and the relationship of wetlands to their wet meadows and associated riparian lands.
Further, wetland conservation is not achievable without wetland management. Managing wetlands and their associated riparian lands is really about regulating and controlling human activities that impact wetlands. Perhaps the policy title could reflect some of the complexity involved in these systems. A suggested alternative is The Wetland and Riparian Land Conservation and Management Policy. Maybe that seems long, but why does brevity matter? Policy directives need to be clearly written to be implementable.
In the article next week, notes about the relevant provisions in the MGA will frame the discussion. The following week, the first myth, that wetlands exist in isolation as separate unconnected landscape features, will be thoroughly trounced.
The second myth, which can be called “Environmental reserves are a panacea,” reflects the prevailing misinterpretation of the environmental reserve provision in the Municipal Government Act (MGA). Environmental reserve dedication at the time of subdivision provides merely one tool for wetland and riparian land conservation and management. They are not a panacea. For decades, the misinterpretation has led to rampant destruction of wetlands and riparian lands adjacent to water bodies during subdivision and development activities. It has led to the idea that only semi-permanent and permanent wetlands may be required to be dedicated to a municipality at the time of subdivision, and that a six-metre strip of riparian land adjacent to water bodies is sufficient to “prevent pollution” or “provide public access.”
A municipality does not have to achieve both pollution prevention and public access through these narrow riparian corridors: a council has a choice to make. Pollution has many forms, but research demonstrates that sediments from adjacent developments are pollutants. To prevent sedimentation, laden with nitrates and phosphorous from runoff during and post development, research supports a minimum 30-metre “buffer” of riparian lands adjacent to water bodies. Depending on the source or type of pollution to be prevented, or what kind of public access is desired, for example a beach or marina, a much wider “buffer” might be required.
The third myth, called “The myth of no net loss” is the economic concept of no net loss, which has resulted in the loss of wetlands and riparian lands in the name of efficiency through substituting wetland infrastructure with a dollar value paid as compensation to the province for the destruction of provincially-owned wetland bed and shores. No net loss actually leads to the removal of wetlands during development at a cost so small in the overall scheme of multi-million dollar subdivisions that the compensation paid for destroying wetlands amounts to a minor cost of doing business.
Any compensation paid to the province is used by Ducks Unlimited elsewhere in the watershed and is not invested in restoration of wetlands in the Cochrane community. Cochrane is left with fewer wetlands and no compensation. This is a net loss of wetland inventory no matter how you look at it.
The fourth myth, called “Implementation and court challenges” is that wetland and riparian land conservation and management policy is difficult to implement or challengeable in the courts. Anything done by a municipality is challengeable in the courts, but claims must be proven and court decisions are based on legal precedents. Such precedents have evolved in recent years demonstrating the courts’ awareness of the scientifically determined essential functions of wetlands and riparian lands in providing ecological goods and services to society. Furthermore, the MGA provides many tools to enable the implementation of wetland and riparian land conservation and management policy, including a special bylaw passing power for municipal “direction, control and management” of water bodies located within local boundaries.
More next week.
Last week, the article on wetlands indicated that municipalities are responsible for land-use planning with some exceptions. To clarify, municipalities regulate and control land use on private lands only, as the province is responsible for land use on public lands. As well, the province has created separate legislation to direct land use decision-making for other sectors, such as oil and gas, mining, intensive agriculture, commercial timber harvesting on public lands, etc.