In their Wetland Identification Directive, Alberta Environment and Parks defined wetlands as land saturated with water for long enough to promote the formation of water altered soils, the growth of water tolerant vegetation and biological activity adapted to a wet environment. [1]

More specifically, according to the Wetland Restoration Directive used by Alberta Environment and Parks, there are five different types of wetlands and each of these types have different qualities:[2]

  1. Marsh
  2. Swamp
  3. Fen
  4. Bog
  5. Shallow open water

The protection of wetlands has not had a good track record in Alberta, in part because when development first started to pick up in the province, wetlands were generally seen as a nuisance for farmland and were usually drained. [3] This led to the destruction of numerous wetlands in favour of cultivated, agricultural land. However, in recent years we have learned more about how important wetlands are to our environment and have started working on protecting the wetlands that remain.

Wetlands and the activities that may impact them are regulated under the Water Act, the Public Lands Act, and the provincial wetland policy. [4] This section will focus on wetland policy, where the majority of comprehensive, albeit unenforceable, wetland management occurs. [5]

Alberta’s first wetland policy, the “Wetland Management in the Settled Area of Alberta: An Interim Policy” was released in 1991.[6] It focused on some of the problems that had arisen due to wetland drainage. However, it only applied to two of the five types of wetlands (sloughs and marshes), and then, only in half of the province.[7] Since that time, Alberta has been slow at adopting a formal wetland policy and the current policy (the first of its kind) only began to take effect in July of 2016.

The current policy is more substantial than the 1991 version and the goals of the new wetland policy include the conservation, restoration, protection, and management of Alberta’s wetlands with the hope of sustaining the benefits they provide to the environment, society, and the economy. [9]

One of the overarching focuses of the new wetland policy is to mandate that if and when wetlands are destroyed, whether because of industry, human expansion or otherwise, they are properly replaced. This policy attempts to do so by applying a mitigation hierarchy which begins with the best option – complete avoidance of wetland impacts.[10] Next, it moves on to the second-best option which is when avoidance is not possible, harm to the wetlands must be minimized. [11] Finally, and as a last resort where both avoidance and minimization efforts are not feasible, the third best option is wetland replacement. [12] It is up to the person who plans to impact the wetland area, to prove that they have followed this hierarchy and are using the least intrusive means available. [13]

The wetland policy also recognizes that not all wetlands have the same ecological significance. It provides a classification method arguing that wetlands are highly diverse in form, function, use, and distribution across the province and therefore are not all of equal value. [14] The objective of this system is to create more incentive to avoid higher valued wetlands. To ensure that this is done properly, the policy also describes how a wetland is ranked, how to determine this ranking, what the replacement ratio will be, and how to ensure that the proper replacement is completed. [15] The policy also requires scientific monitoring and supervision throughout the entire process. [16]

The system can be criticized as the ranking of wetlands conducted by the government is not transparent (i.e. there is little accountability for wetland rankings) and there is a lack of clarity in how avoidance and mitigation are assessed as part of the policy.

Hopefully, this new policy means that the government is starting to recognize the immense ecological importance of wetlands in Alberta, their importance for biodiversity, climate change, the health of our ecosystems, and more and that it will continue to implement new policy that reflects this.

<< Where did these laws come from? – A brief history of water law in Alberta

Water Licences >>

[1] Matthew J Wilson et al. “Alberta Wetland Identification and Delineation Directive” (1 June 2015) Alberta Environment and Parks at 2 online: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/b2a69660-7f44-4c8c-9499-0da23946dafa/resource/3917b05d-7cf8-4d08-b3ae-74a15af625ce/download/2015-alberta-wetland-identification-delineation-directive-june-2015.pdf; Anish Neupane et al., “Alberta Wetland Restoration Directive” (1 November 2016) Alberta Environment and Parks online: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/b042aeb9-0830-4466-8765-07ad8393a8c8/resource/2b73b063-b905-4f4b-8427-6e4a651b8b34/download/2016-alberta-wetland-restoration-directive-november-1-2016.pdf.

[2] Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, “Alberta Wetland Classification System Guide” (1 June 2015) Water Policy branch, Policy and Planning Division at 2 online: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/92fbfbf5-62e1-49c7-aa13-8970a099f97d/resource/1e4372ca-b99c-4990-b4f5-dbac23424e3a/download/2015-Alberta-Wetland-Classification-System-June-01-2015.pdf.

[3] Wetlands Alberta, “Wetland Loss” online: http://www.wetlandsalberta.ca/wetland-loss/.

[4] Alberta Environment and Parks, Alberta Wetland Policy (September 2013) Government of Alberta online: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/5250f98b-2e1e-43e7-947f-62c14747e3b3/resource/43677a60-3503-4509-acfd-6918e8b8ec0a/download/6249018-2013-alberta-wetland-policy-2013-09.pdf

[5] Alberta Environment and Parks, “Guide for Assessing Permanence of Wetland Basins” (29 January 2016) online: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/02b938d2-a26b-41e8-b343-602b4b6c0c57/resource/98b50b87-6ffe-4c32-ae34-c49e2a3c706c/download/2016-assessingpermanencewetlandbasins-feb2016a.pdf.  

[6] Alberta Water Resources Commission, “Wetland Management in the Settled Area of Alberta: An Interim Policy” (1991) online: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/f2246350-9b0a-4c26-9c74-58da18599f7a/resource/d6d8b37a-e2a5-47df-850a-db18e315f458/download/1993-wetlandmanagementsettled-interimpolicy.pdf.

[7] Alberta Water Resources Commission, “Wetland Management in the Settled Area of Alberta: An Interim Policy” at 1.

[8] Alberta Environment and Parks: Water Policy Branch, “Alberta Wetland Mitigation Directive” (1 June 2017) online: https://open.alberta.ca/dataset/2e6ebc5f-3172-4920-9cd5-0c472a22f0e8/resource/62b9a6ce-1d5a-4bc8-832e-c818e3e65410/download/alberta-wetland-mitigation-directive-201812.pdf.

[9] Alberta Wetland Policy.  

[10] Alberta Wetland Policy at 14.

[11] Alberta Wetland Policy at 14.

[12] Alberta Wetland Policy at 14.

[13] Alberta Wetland Policy at 15.

[14] Alberta Wetland Policy at 11.

[15] Alberta Wetland Policy at 11-13

[16] Alberta Wetland Policy at 22.




Water Law

Lesson Plan: Fundamentals of Environmental Law
Lesson Plan: Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
Lesson Plan: Tragedy of the Commons
Lesson Plan: Climate Litigation

Curriculum Connections


Join our new Alberta Environmental Laws 101 Facebook group to ask questions, participate in discussions and keep up to date on environmental news. Please share this widely so that the high school teachers and students in your circles hear about this great new resource for supplemental online learning. Alberta Environmental Laws 101 Facebook Group