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A wetland is the general term we use to describe parts of the landscape where water and land meet and intermingle.

Wetlands include the edges of streams, rivers and lakes, as well as springs and a whole range of soggy lands from sloughs to peat bogs and fens. Although the degree of stability of wetlands varies naturally, all wetlands perform ecological functions, whether they contain water on a seasonal or year-round basis.

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    “Wetlands of all types are integral components of Alberta’s landscape and play an important role in sustaining healthy watersheds. In turn, wetland health is influenced by a variety of factors including climate, groundwater, surface water, vegetation, soils, and human and animal activity.”
    (Government of Alberta, Wetland Consultation Workbook, 2007)

    Ecological Services

    Wetlands provide a great variety of valuable ecological services, including the following:

    • detoxification of pollutants
    • inactivation of pharmaceutical drugs
    • silt filtration
    • sewage breakdown
    • removal of excess fertilizers
    • general water purification
    • recharging of groundwater
    • provision of a buffer against both floods and droughts
    • storage of atmospheric carbon and accompanying moderation of greenhouse gas levels
    • habitat for rich biodiversity and abundant life

    Wetland Types

    Approximately one-fifth of Alberta’s landbase is covered in wetlands. In Alberta, wetlands can be divided into two broad categories: peatlands and non-peatlands.


    Peatlands, such as bogs and fens, are characterized by their peat-based soils and are found mostly in the forested northern part of the province. In fact, 90 percent of Alberta’s wetlands are peatlands located in the boreal region.

    • Bogs, also known as muskegs, are poorly drained and filled with mats of peat moss (sphagnum moss). They are acidic and surrounded by boreal forest black spruce and tamarack trees.
    • Fens, a unique feature of the Boreal Region, are a type of peatland that has some water flow, sometimes causing patterns through the peat masses. They are less acidic than bogs and therefore support different types of flora and fauna. Fens are generally surrounded by sedges, grasses, shrubs and tamarack trees.

    The northern part of Alberta, known as the boreal forest, contains more than 100,000 km2 of bogs and fens, amounting to about 11 percent of Canada’s peatlands. Until very recently, these were considered to have little value except for the production of peat used by gardeners and in industrial filtration. Peatlands are now being recognized as representing unique ecosystems that provide habitat for over 400 species of plants, many of them threatened or endangered. Many wildlife species are associated with peatlands as well, including the endangered woodland caribou. The role these vast peat bogs play in climate stability is just beginning to be understood, and this may be their greatest ecological service.


    Non-peatlands, comprising mostly marshes, ponds, swamps, and shallow open water, are found primarily in the more settled Parkland and Prairie Regions of the southern half of the province.

    • Marshes, also called sloughs, are areas of open, slow-moving water dominated by plants like reeds, rushes, cattails, and grasses.
    • Shallow open water, also called ponds and potholes, usually have no obvious rate of flow and contain water plants like duck weed and water lilies.
    • Swamps are forested ponds with little obvious flow that are fed by spring floods and snowmelt. They are surrounded by shrubs and trees like black spruce, willow, and tamarack.

    Wetland Loss

    Up to 70 percent of Canadian prairie wetlands have been drained and filled in, mainly to facilitate agriculture. In Alberta, 64 percent of wetlands in the White Area have been lost. The estimated wetland loss in Alberta’s Parkland Region alone is 61 percent. Today we have a better understanding of the vital role wetlands play in maintaining wildlife and ecosystem health and in storing, cleaning, and replenishing vital water supplies. Unaltered wetlands are one of the most cost-effective means of controlling floods and cleaning water.

    While there has been some success in restoring prairie wetlands disturbed by agriculture and industrial activities, it is generally acknowledged that a restored wetland does not function as optimally as an original intact wetland. In the Wetland Consultation Workbook, 2007, produced by the Alberta Water Council, it is acknowledged that “it is almost impossible to fully replicate the complexity of a natural wetland ecosystem.” Peat-based wetlands are especially complex. They develop over thousands of years and there is currently scientific consensus that once damaged, they are impossible to restore to their original ecological functionality.

    Nature’s Filters

    Wetlands are nature’s kidneys, functioning on a broad scale to filter and clean water and to recharge surface and underground water supplies. Cities like Calgary are moving toward retaining and even building wetlands. Wetlands are gaining increasing regard for their ability to settle and clean storm water, which is often very contaminated with dog feces, spilled solvents, paint and oil, salt from winter streets, and so on. Wetlands also provide urban wildlife habitats and enhance city aesthetics.

    Prince’s Island Park in downtown Calgary is home to a constructed wetland designed to help filter storm water. Many groups collaborated to build an interpretive trail to help educate Calgarians about the many benefits wetlands provide and what we can all do to reduce the amount of contaminants making their way into the Bow River through the storm sewer system.

    The real workers in wetlands are plants, mud bacteria and fungi, and filter feeders like freshwater mussels. Research shows that the plants in healthy wetlands located in agricultural areas can remove up to 92 percent of nitrogen and 95 percent of phosphorous from over-fertilization of fields. While drawing water through their systems, plants chemically alter or filter out many toxins and detrimental chemicals. Bacteria and fungi in wetland muds gradually convert most filtered toxins, except for heavy metals, into benign materials.

    April 14, 2023

    AWA Report: A Review of Suncor’s McClelland Lake Wetland Complex Operational Plan for the Fort Hills Oil Sands Project

    Executive Summary:  The Fort Hills Oil Sands Project is an existing Suncor-owned oil sands mine…

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    April 12, 2023

    AER Letter in Response to AWA’s McClelland Lake Wetland Complex Report

    On March 31, 2023, Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) submitted an advance copy of our report…

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    April 3, 2023

    AWA Concerns with the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex Operational Plan

    Wild Lands Advocate article by: Phillip Meintzer Click here for a pdf version of the…

    Read more »

    January 6, 2023

    Where are the Approval Conditions for Suncor’s Expansion into Alberta’s Irreplaceable McClelland Lake Wetland Complex?

      Alberta Wilderness Association (AWA) learned on November 14, 2022, that the Alberta Energy Regulator…

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    September 9, 2022

    AER Letter of Authorization re: Suncor’s McClelland Lake Wetland Complex Operational Plan

    Suncor’s McClelland Late Wetland Complex Operational Plan was approved by a Letter of Authorization submitted…

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    March 24, 2022

    Alberta Peatlands: A Valued Resource Under Stress

    For those of you who were unable to attend last week’s presentation, we have posted…

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    March 1, 2022

    Upcoming AWA Talks

    Dear valued AWA members, Please join us on the evening of Tuesday, March 15th, as…

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    February 9, 2022

    Suncor’s Fort Hills Oil Sands Project – Integrated Plan Amendment Application

    The Fort Hills Oil Sands Project – Integrated Plan Amendment (IPA) Application was submitted to…

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    January 5, 2022

    Letter to AER regarding the Fort Hills Oil Sands Project at the McClelland Lake Wetland Complex

    Please click the link below to view AWA’s letter submitted to the Alberta Energy Regulator…

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    December 15, 2021

    Fort Hills Oil Sands Project – McClelland Lake Wetland Complex Operational Plan 2021

    The McClelland Lake Wetland Complex (MLWC) Operational Plan (OP), was submitted to the Alberta Energy…

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    November 30, 2021

    No money, no answers

    Wild Lands Advocate article by: Phillip Meintzer, AWA Conservation Specialist Click here for a pdf…

    Read more »

    February 8, 2021

    December WLA Water Update

    Wild Lands Advocate update by: Nissa Petterson, AWA Conservation Specialist Click here for a pdf…

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