Key Things That New Graduates in Environmental Science or Engineering Need to Know About Wetlands

If you are a new graduate or if you’re just getting up to speed on wetlands here are a few key things that you’ll want to know:

1) Wetland vs. Watercourse: To the untrained eye, distinguishing a wetland from watercourse might seem simple. But especially where there has been disturbance, the line can be much blurrier. A watercourse can be a wetland (e.g. watercourses within a fen) and a wetland can be a watercourse (e.g. an ox-bow wetland may become connected to a river at high flow). In reality, there is no hard and fast line. But when it comes to the policies that apply, some arbitrary lines have been drawn.

The way that wetlands are classified and the way that wetlands are differentiated from watercourses (or not differentiated!) is often policy-driven. In Alberta, both wetlands and watercourses are described as a “water body” in the Alberta Water Act and a “body of water” in the Public Lands Act. So, under these two acts they’re grouped under a larger umbrella term.

The Alberta Wetland Classification System (AWCS) was created as a Directive under the Alberta Wetland Policy and must be applied to all water bodies subject to Water Act approval. Within the AWCS and under the Alberta Wetland Policy a wetland is defined as:

Land saturated with water long enough to promote wetland or aquatic processes as indicated by the poorly drained soils, hydrophytic vegetation, and various kinds of biological activity that are adapted to a wet environment

So, the soil and vegetation conditions (as assessed in the field or a desktop review) indicate a wetland. The AWCS provides guidance on how and where to look for hydromorphic soils (or soils subject to being water-logged) and water-loving plants. Within the AWCS there is also a key which distinguishes wetland from non-wetland areas.

This is an example based on Alberta’s policy, other Provinces have their own policies and classification systems which, although similar, will have their own nuances.

2) Wetland Classification Systems – regardless of whether you are collecting field data or reviewing desktop data wetland classifications are an important building block. Depending on the region/Province you are concerned with different systems may apply:

    1. Wetlands of British Columbia: A Guide To Identification, wetland site classes are similar to AWCS and the Canadian Wetland Classification System and site associations that relate to the edatopic grid (moisture, nutrients, water dynamics), plant communities and other environmental conditions comprise the wetland classification.
    2. Alberta Wetland Classification System, Alberta has developed its own wetland classification system which, while unique has similarities to the Canadian Wetland Classification system and the Stewart and Kantrud system.
    3. The Stewart and Kantrud wetland classification system (widely known as S&K), classifies natural ponds and lakes in the glaciated prairie region, and although it was developed in the 1970’s it is still very influential in the southern portion of the prairie provinces (and some US states). This system is still being used in Saskatchewan.
    4. Based on the S&K system the Ducks Unlimited Manitoba Prairie Wetland guide features some great graphics and photos which demonstrate what the wetland classes look like in the field and on imagery
    5. One of the key limitations of S&K is that it doesn’t really address organic wetlands (Bogs and Fens, think places with peat moss). For more northerly areas you will want to be familiar with the Canadian Wetland Classification System

Ducks unlimited also has a Field Guide to the Western Boreal Plains which is compatible with the Canadian Wetland Classification System

All of these systems and policies can be a lot to navigate that’s where some training or a great mentor can be invaluable.

3) Mentors and Sign Off – As someone early in their career (or new to wetlands) you will likely be collecting field data or delineating wetlands under the direction of a more senior professional. It’s worth knowing that you can expect to be in this role for quite a number of years. For instance, in Alberta, when working on any project subject to the Alberta Wetland Policy, you will need to be working under an Authenticating Wetland Professional who will be signing off on your work for ~8 years (unless you are already a Professional with one of the nine professional organizations).There is a Professional Practice Standard that outlines the requirements for these Authenticating Professionals in Alberta. If this guide leaves you scratching your head, check out SALMTEC’s webinar video on our YouTube channel where we picked the brains of several of the Standard’s authors.

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