09/30/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 11/29/2012 05:12 EST

Dollars, politics force bureaucrats to ignore wetland rules: study

EDMONTON - If Shari Clare noticed anything during five years as a private-sector environmental consultant in Alberta it was the "void between what regulations say and what happens on the ground."

That void became the subject of her thesis, which is soon to be published in the journal Society and Natural Resources. Two years of research at the University of Alberta gave her what she calls a scientifically credible analysis of "the subtle, hidden power that everyone in Alberta knows about but nobody talks about."

Alberta Environment routinely and increasingly disregards its own guidelines on protecting and conserving wetlands, she concludes.

She uses 34 lengthy interviews with everyone from executive-level bureaucrats to industry representatives to describe a government culture where well-intentioned rules often come second to politics and dollars.

"You need to have some strength and willingness on the regulator's side to be able to say 'no,' " she quotes one government employee as saying. "I'm not sure that saying 'no' is in the provincial vocabulary."

Wetlands filter runoff, buffer floods and provide highly biodiverse habitat, so developers must get provincial approval before disturbing them.

"Alberta Environment's priority is to avoid having land development impact wetland area whenever possible," provincial guidelines say.

If that's not possible, the guidelines say, new wetlands as similar as possible to the originals should be created to compensate.

Any new marshes within 20 kilometres of the old ones are supposed to be three times as large as the originals. If they are 20 to 80 kilometres away, the ratio increases on a sliding scale to a maximum of 10-to-1.

New wetlands further than 80 kilometres away are considered "exceptional circumstances" and are supposed to be negotiated case by case.

Clare found only 12 per cent of 504 approvals granted under the Water Act between 1999 and 2010 had restored wetlands within 20 kilometres.

Almost half the approvals — 49 per cent — were for compensation more than 80 kilometres away. In 2010, the average distance between a destroyed wetland and its replacement was 102 kilometres.

And the size of the replacement wetlands shrank. By 2010, the average ratio was 2.8-to-1 — less than the minimum — even as the distances grew.

Consideration for not disturbing the wet areas in the first place appeared to be rare.

Said one environmental consultant interviewed in the study: "I skip to (compensation) right away, just because I've never encountered somebody saying, 'No, don't touch this wetland.'"

Clare's paper suggests guidelines are being ignored because it would take too long to find replacement wetlands that fit the bill.

"The lack of compensation sites was identified in interviews as being a major impediment to the ability of applicants to 'get on with their development,'" she writes.

"Many government regulators feel that they are responsible for ensuring reasonableness and fairness for proponents, rather than apply the guidelines as written. By bartering less environmentally demanding wetland compensation requirements, regulators minimize political costs for government and financial costs for proponents."

Ducks Unlimited is largely responsible for taking compensation payments, locating suitable sites, negotiating with landowners and doing the work.

Spokesman Tracy Scott said it's not always possible to find replacement sites nearby, especially if a wetland to be disturbed is near a city. He said restoring a more distant wetland is still better than seeing compensation payments diverted to installing boardwalks or signs on existing projects.

"The approvals manager has to make a choice as to whether they allow non-replacement measures ... or do they allow flexibility to go outside that 20-kilometre zone knowing at least we are restoring lost wetland."

It would help if the government was occasionally willing to say 'no,' said Scott.

"If there was more attention placed on avoidance, there would be less pressure on the province achieving its desired outcomes for the policy."

Andy Ridge, water policy director for Alberta Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, said the government deserves more credit than what Clare's paper gives it.

"We know that there's been avoidance and minimization that's been incorporated into decisions. We don't know what they're avoiding because it isn't tracked."

Flexibility is always going to be needed, he added.

"No wetland is created equal. Each approval and authorization has unique circumstances that the policy framework has to recognize."

The current policy requires at least some form of mitigation, said Ridge.

"Is it doing enough? Is it consistent enough? No, it's got to improve."

Ridge said Alberta is compiling an inventory of wetlands and studying what their roles are in the ecosystem. That will be used to develop a new management system that places more emphasis on avoidance disturbances entirely.

The system will still be flexible and may even treat different parts of the province differently. But there won't be any doubt 'no' is part of its vocabulary, said Ridge.

"It's going to be tougher up front and more flexibility at the back end. But that flexibility is going to be better informed than we are today."