The Value of Water + Wetlands for the Vermilion River: Past, Present + Future

By Kerri O’Shaughnessy, Cows and Fish

In August 2015, I spoke at an educational forum in Vermilion, Alberta, about some of the history that has shaped the Vermilion River and its watershed as we know it today. My presentation, titled “The Life and Times of the Vermilion River Watershed,” described this landscape early on when the Cree and the Blackfoot battled over space, bison, and beaver. Explorer Anthony Henday (September 1754) commented on the “level land, with few woods and plenty of good water,” while Peter Fidler (March 1793) wrote about “passing a great number of very small lakes or rather ponds.”

With the railroad in 1905 came European settlers (maybe your relatives), and the life of ranching and farming began. As time has passed, wetlands have been drained and rivers straightened to make room for roads and settlement, and the landscape looks much different in many places. It is some of these changes that brought us together on this warm August day to learn about restoring and enhancing wetlands and riparian areas in the Vermilion River watershed for the future.

The forum was hosted by the Vermilion River Watershed Alliance (VRWA) and the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance (NSWA) at Lakeland College.

Why do wetlands and riparian areas matter?

Whether you refer to a wetland as the low land, a slough, or a pain in the you-know-what, you are not wrong. “Wetlands are land that is wet,” Judy Stewart summarized from the legal definition in her presentation at this same forum. They have poorly drained soils and water-loving vegetation (e.g., cattails). Their storage capacity reduces the impacts of flood and drought, and they act as a natural filter for cleaner water. “Despite the nuisance factor they sometimes pose to our activities, their value to us for ecosystem services far exceeds the cost of the land,” David Locky told us. Some experts (Costanza et al. 1997) derived some estimates of those values.

  • Flood Control: $237,000/hectare/year
  • Nutrient Filtration: $185,734/hectare/year
  • Water Supply: $719,651/hectare/year

Similarly, riparian areas—transition areas between aquatic and upland ecosystems—filter water, allow groundwater recharge and slow release of water to the surface. Without this “sponge” effect, less groundwater is stored when we get rain and snowmelt, and as a consequence, less water is available when we don’t get rain or snow. Riparian areas also provide habitat for fish and wildlife and forage for livestock—often offering higher production than adjacent upland pastures.

Landowners leading the way

Increasingly, landowners are being asked to help protect, restore, or manage wetlands and riparian areas in their care. Some, like Sean Magrath, a fifth-generation farmer who spoke at this forum, are already doing so. On Magrath’s land, they used to let the cows into the creek and wetlands in the summer but have now installed fencing and changed grazing to the fall and winter to “take the pressure off” riparian zones and wetlands in the spring and summer. He sees how improving the ecological health of these areas also provides benefits to their ranching operation. And he emphasized that he didn’t do it alone: partnerships, access to funding programs, and people with a variety of knowledge have been key in informing the decisions they make on their ranch.

Restoring degraded wetlands and riparian areas is the first step to re-establishing their functions and the benefits these lands can provide. Restoration might involve installing a ditch plug in a previously drained wetland in order to allow water to accumulate again, or putting up a fence or alternative watering system to change the way livestock graze a pasture to allow for rest and recovery. Using the landscape differently can be an intimidating prospect, but as Sean Magrath shared, “It doesn’t have to be a complete makeover of an operation all at once; it can be small steps… leading to an overall larger impact.”

The above article was adapted from the version published in the November 9, 2015 issue of the Vermilion Voice.