Alberta wetlands critical during drought year

Alberta farmer Dan Liddle is thankful for wetlands.

“If I didn’t actually have any wetlands on my property, the cattle would have been completely out of pasture,” Liddle explained.

The hot and dry conditions this year have been brutal.

“I don’t think it’s been as bad as this — we’ve been close, but this is I think the worst we’ve had,” he said.

“Other places are probably even worse than what we are — we’re getting by — but a lot of people are going to have to sell cattle and so on.”

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Liddle is part of a program called ALUS (Alternative Land Use Services). It pays farmers to set aside wetlands, helping with conservation efforts.

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“That’s the whole purpose of it — we’re protecting wildlife habitat, water quality, all those kinds of things,” Liddle explained.

He manages about five different areas on his property and, like many farmers, has been relying on them.

“I’ve got enough hay to last most of the winter, and I had enough pasture to look after the cattle for the summer — mostly because I do have wetlands,” he said.

Read more: Severe drought in Alberta brings on early harvest

One of the many important functions of wetlands is they help mitigate drought.

“Having wetlands on the landscape provide that storage that enables the water — the little bit of water we do have during drought years — to stay on the  landscape rather than being exported,” said Tracy Scott, the industry and government relations provincial head for Ducks Unlimited Canada.

Scott said it’s important to emphasize the impact this drought has had on the agriculture sector.

Ducks Unlimited Canada also works with farmers and ranchers, paying them to restore wetlands previously drained.

According to Scott, it restores around 900 acres per year in Alberta all through agreements with private landowners.

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“We also continue to lose between 0.3 and 0.5 per cent of our wetlands per year, so over a four-year period that is the equivalent to the loss of Glenmore Reservoir, so we have to be cognizant of that ongoing loss,” Scott explained.

According to the province, Alberta has lost an estimated 60 to 70 per cent of wetlands in the settled areas.

“One individual small wetland on the landscape may not seem to make a big difference, but it’s the tens of thousands of wetlands on the landscape that cumulatively do make a big difference and conversely draining those wetlands also has a large cumulative effect,” Scott said.

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Around Edmonton and farther south, there are thousands of wetlands affected by the dry conditions.

“Some wetlands, the ones that have their water just from their nearby — a small catchment around them — many of those have dried out and dried out more than a normal year,” David Olefeldt said, an associate professor in the renewable resources department at the University of Alberta.

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“We do have many wetlands this year that have dried out that haven’t been dry for a very long time.”

Olefeldt underscored how critical wetland restoration is.

Another dry year, on top of this one, and their functions will be even lower.

“Without wetlands we would have even worse conditions in terms of how much water we have in our wells, and how much it dries out the fields around the wetlands,” Olefeldt said.

“The serious risk we have is that we’ve lost so many wetlands already, and that means that the function that wetlands perform even in a dry year is even more degraded.”

As for Liddle, he’s proud to be part of that conservation effort.

“Anybody this year that has wetlands is going to be very thankful and grateful,” Liddle said.

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