Better Bang For The Buck Seen In Wetlands

“It’s also 10 times more cost effective potentially than the amount of money we’re investing in

Winnipeg’s waste water treatment facility to remove phosphorus.”

– GREG BRUCE, DUCKS UNLIMITED

In a time of tight budgets and cutbacks, who will pay for preserving wetlands, natural landscapes, water quality and sequestering carbon?

Greg Bruce, head of industry and government relations for Ducks Unlimited Canada, said refocusing government spending priorities might be the key.

“We need to get outside our comfort zone in terms of rationalizing and justifying moving forward with an EG&S program,” said Bruce, in a presentation at a recent stakeholders’ information and brainstorming session hosted here by the Manitoba Conservation Districts Association.

“One of the things we’ve done is compare the investment in EG&S with other investments that government is doing.”

Bruce said he wasn’t intent on disparaging other important programs, but added that DUC estimates found that stopping wetland loss would prevent 7.5 times as much carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere as the province’s current biodiesel strategy for the same investment – and nine times as much greenhouse gas equivalents from the proposed methane capture facility at the Brandon landfill, which will cost over $1 million a year.

“It’s also 10 times more cost effective potentially than the amount of money we’re investing in Winnipeg’s waste water treatment facility to remove phosphorus,” he said.

“Those are all important initiatives, yet we don’t have an EG&S program to reward producers for keeping wetlands around. Perhaps we should, because there is a lot of value in it.”

“POLITICALLY DESIRABLE”

Education from the grass-roots level would make an EG&S announcement in the provincial budget “politically desirable,” he added, noting that a DUC research survey conducted last year found that if the public is informed about the value of wetlands, their receptiveness to forking over tax dollars to save them soars.

Research in the R. M. of Blanshard’s Broughton’s Creek watershed north of Brandon, looking at wetland drainage from 1968 to 2005, found during that period that only 21 per cent of the total area was intact. About 69 per cent had been lost or degraded.

If the results were scaled up to cover all of Manitoba’s pothole country, without the nutrient “sinks” that wetlands provide, the phosphorus going into Lake Winnipeg from both agricultural and natural sources would amount to 114 tonnes per year, or one seven-kilogram bag of lawn fertilizer for every resident of the provincial capital.

“If you’re moving water, you’re moving phosphorus,” he said.

When those numbers were presented to 10,000 Manitobans in a survey, over 80 per cent of respondents said that they were concerned about wetland loss, and would be willing to pay $294 per household per year over five years to retain wetlands at current levels, and up to $358 per year over the same period to restore them to 100 per cent of pre-settlement levels.

Wetlands, when considering all of the environmental advantages including the need to preserve biodiversity and the hot-button issue of carbon and climate change in the public imagination, are ideally suited as the basis for an EG&S program, he added.

At the very least, he added, “perverse” institutionalized incentives in the form of property taxes levied on wetlands must be removed before government starts rewarding landowners for doing the right thing.

“We’re never going to get it perfect off the hop. So what? Let’s agree to move forward, and let’s agree to improve it as we go,” said Bruce.

“WAIT AND WAIT”

Jim Fisher, director of conservation policy for Delta Waterfowl, said that rather than “wait and wait” for government, his group has forged ahead with small demonstration projects in Ontario and Alberta.

“I think we’ve learned that we can’t rely on the government solely for this,” he said. Hunters, who in the U. S. spend $75 billion per year on their sport, are a large potential funding source, he said.

Tim Sopuck, CEO of Manitoba Habitat Heritage Corp. , addressed the issue of perceived unfairness surrounding wetland retention versus restoration in response to a question from the audience.

If the province’s Wetland Restoration Incentive Program (WRIP) is aimed at rewarding “good stewards of the land” who restore drained wetlands, what about the farmers who never drained theirs in the first place?

He noted that while it costs about $100 per acre to secure wetlands in perpetuity through a conservation easement, restoring a wetland can cost over $1,000 per acre.

“I understand the importance of restoration,” he said. “There are some landowners who have managed their land in such a way that they may have all their wetlands still pristine. If that is the outcome that we truly want, should we not value what that landowner has done?”

This conundrum has long troubled conservationists, who must somehow find a way to “pay for outcomes,” and not just changes in land uses.

For politicians who must sell policy goals to the electorate, being able to show quantifiable results, in the form of acres of revived wetlands on the landscape, is important – even though it’s a well-established fact that restored wetlands are never as biodiverse as those that were never drained.

“It’s a tough question. But I feel fortunate that we’ve been able to deliver wetland restoration over the past number of years that we haven’t been able to do before,” said Sopuck.

“We’re not going to turn away any opportunity to achieve results on the land.” [email protected]

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