Fighting Green with Green for Great Lakes Water Quality

(Courtesy of Ducks Unlimited Canada)

Lake Erie’s long-threatened water quality gets fresh hope with collaborative wetland restoration project

Paul General, wildlife manager for the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, was among the eight First Nations communities represented at a knowledge and experiences sharing workshop organized in February by Ducks Unlimited Canada. The workshop gave participants opportunities to exchange perspectives on wetland conservation in the Lake Erie watershed and discuss topics like invasive species and wetland restoration.

General is a member of Canada’s largest Indigenous community, one that for generations has relied on the watershed’s natural features to sustain its people. He singles out one of them.

“Water is a giver of life,” says General. “Without water, all things cease to exist.”

This home truth fortifies the passionate efforts behind the Lake Erie Watershed Wetlands Initiative (LEWWI), an ongoing collaborative project dedicated to improving the water quality in Lake Erie, the southernmost, shallowest, and smallest-by-volume of the Great Lakes. It’s also the Great Lake that’s most susceptible to blue-green algae. The algae, growing in response to excess nutrients, produces toxins that threaten drinking water sources, fish populations, beach quality, coastal recreational activities and the overall ecological health of the lake.

The cause of Lake Erie’s algae problem
There’s broad consensus within the scientific community that the main culprit promoting the growth of this destructive algae is phosphorus, a nutrient that enters the lake from a variety of Canadian and American sources including farmers’ fields, where the fertilizer is used to promote plant root development. The gravity of the problem varies by year depending on many factors, but very wet years, like 2017, can be especially bad when too much early spring rainfall carries more nutrients towards Lake Erie.

Still, 2017 was also a standout year for the promise it heralded for the lake’s water woes. That’s when DUC received a $1.3 million transfer payment—half from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and half from Infrastructure Canada —to restore wetland habitats and conduct project rebuilds in the Lake Erie watershed. This investment recognizes the emerging value of wetlands for improving water quality, a trend that’s taking hold across the country.

“It’s the first time the federal government has given money for wetland restoration, as an investment in green infrastructure, and that’s a big deal for us and other conservation organizations,” says Owen Steele, DUC’s head of conservation programs in Ontario. “It’s an affirmation of the importance of green infrastructure in addressing critical issues that impact society.”

Since European settlement, southwestern Ontario has lost as much as 90 per cent of its wetland habitat to urban development and agricultural intensification. The scale of this loss has sped up the flow of water and its associated nutrients downstream, diminishing the quality of our surface waters and contributing to water quality issues in our rivers and lakes.

In summer 2017, restoration work was well underway at this small wetland project located on a 270-acre agricultural property along the Thames River in the County of Middlesex.
In summer 2017, restoration work was well underway at this small wetland project located on a 270-acre agricultural property along the Thames River in the County of Middlesex. 

Helping Lake Erie’s water quality with green infrastructure
If draining and degrading wetlands has contributed to Lake Erie’s problems, putting some back on the landscape may be part of the answer. These restored wetlands collect water, trapping nutrients before they reach the lake, and are a type of green infrastructure identified as a best-management practice for improving water quality issues in Lake Erie.

In 2018, the federal and Ontario governments released the Canada-Ontario Lake Erie Action Plan, which includes a target of 40 per cent reduction in phosphorus loads based on 2008 levels. In spring 2017, the MNRF—with DUC and with additional financial support from Infrastructure Canada—jumpstarted the Action Plan’s implementation through the creation of LEWWI.

The LEWWI consisted of a series of DUC wetland conservation project rebuilds and new wetland restoration projects. The partnership exceeded expectations with the construction of 75 new projects, and the rebuilding of 17 existing wetlands projects within the Lake Erie basin. Most of the new projects are small wetlands on private lands that capture agricultural runoff from adjacent fields and tile outlets. These wetlands help reduce nutrient loading, improve water quality, mitigate flooding and contribute to climate resiliency in a long list of benefits. They also provide important habitat for waterfowl breeding pairs in the spring.

“We are really happy with the work DU Canada has done, as are the other collaborators we worked with on the Lake Erie Action Plan,” says David Copplestone, a policy advisor with MNRF. “With this increased investment, DUC was able to ramp up the amount of projects delivered this year, and so quickly—it was really impressive.”

The benefits of wetlands
Richard Wyma, general manager/secretary-treasurer of the Essex Region Conservation Authority, could say a thing or two—from both a professional and a personal position—about wetland benefits related to water quality, green infrastructure and watershed health. For the last several years, his conservation authority has partnered with DUC on various wetland restoration projects in the Carolinian ecozone: home to 25 per cent of Canada’s population—and the greatest diversity of wildlife species in the country.

“It’s an incredibly significant natural region that’s been heavily impacted by land use over the years, and it’s everyone’s responsibility to do what they can to protect it,” says Wyma.

It’s why he consigned 1.5 acres (0.6 hectares) of his 10 to a DUC-built wetland last year. This shallow water feature, a couple hundred feet from his house, delivers Wyma back to a childhood spent in nature. From his windows, he watches ducks, geese and cormorants make spectacular landings and wild turkeys and deer poke up among the sedges and rushes along its banks. “It’s wonderful to watch birds and wildlife in my own backyard, and to have my son grow up in a place where he can learn about nature in ways other kids can’t.”

For Paul General, such progress is heartening, if ironic. “To a First Nations person, it seems kind of odd that we would have to raise awareness to begin with. You would think that it would be a no-brainer to everyone, how important water is.”


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The New Tools of the Conservation Trade

Courtesy of Ducks Unlimited Canada

When the tried-and-true won’t do, today’s conservationists can tap into high-tech options.

The legacy of volunteers like Glen Michelson continues in a new crop of conservationists like Derek Hallgrimson. DUC hired Hallgrimson earlier this year as a conservation specialist in Strathmore, Alta.

While at Lethbridge College pursuing his bachelor of applied science in ecosystem management, Hallgrimson volunteered and served as president of the DUC Lethbridge College student chapter. This is where he first learned about Michelson.

“He’s left a big impression on the community in southern Alberta,” says Hallgrimson. He understands Michelson’s Kee-man commitment because he shares it. “It’s about appreciating an opportunity to give back.”

But as a millennial, Hallgrimson has a conservation advantage that Michelson didn’t: affordable high-tech.

“Eighty years ago, our mission was to safeguard habitat for waterfowl and wildlife. Today, that mission remains the same,” says David Howerter, DUC’s director of national conservation operations. “But now we have some pretty cool tools at our disposal.”

These new tools allow DUC researchers and conservation specialists to ask new questions, conserve more effectively, and see (and understand) the landscape in a whole new way.

“Eighty years ago, our mission was to safe-guard habitat for waterfowl and wildlife. Today, that mission remains the same. But now we have some pretty cool tools at our disposal.” David Howerter

Sniff it
Picture a Labrador retriever with its snout to the air, picking up a scent. Its nose twitches as it identifies different smells. Now, imagine a tower with similar capabilities, looming several metres over a wetland. Instead of a superior sniffer, this machine has impressive sensors that measure methane and carbon dioxide levels, wind speed and temperature.

This is an eddy covariance system (above), and DUC researchers use the data it collects to determine fluxes of greenhouse gases at wetlands.

By understanding how much carbon dioxide wetlands store, DUC is equipped to advocate for their protection. Thanks to DUC’s team at the Institute for Wetland and Waterfowl Research (and technology), today we know how critical wetlands are to people, as well as wildlife.

“Conserving existing and intact wetlands is important. They’re at a point where they are acting as carbon sinks and having a net cooling effect on the atmosphere,” says Pascal Badiou, a DUC research scientist who specializes in wetland ecology.

Map it
If you’re a fan of police dramas, you’re familiar with the scene where the detective, eager to find a link between crimes, maps the location of each incident to make connections. At DUC, we use a similar approach except our goal is to understand the landscape better and help others do the same. DUC Geographic Information Systems (GIS) specialists assist with this by taking satellite-collected imagery of the earth and layering it with geographically-linked data.

Data-rich maps produced by GIS specialists touch almost every part of DUC’s work. In Hallgrimson’s case, he uses GIS maps to identify wetland basins on a potential landowner partner site. GIS technology is also used to predict waterfowl breeding habitat and track invasive species.

Sense it
This spring, DUC launches a pilot project that will decrease its carbon footprint by deploying Cypress Solutions Sensors (CSS) (above) at up to 25 wetlands.

“This tool will reduce staff travel while allowing us to keep constant watch over wetland projects,” says Andrew Pratt, DUC’s manager of information technology.

One hockey-puck-shaped sensor will be positioned over a wetland to monitor water levels using sonar technology. A second, smaller sensor may also be placed in the water to collect temperature readings. Powered by solar energy, both sensors will be connected to a mini computer, and data will be transmitted to DUC conservation staff via a cellular network.

Using CSS at places like Delta Marsh in Manitoba is important to DUC researchers trying to prevent invasive common carp from entering this world-famous wetland. The destructive carp migrate from Lake Manitoba into the wetland when water temperatures reach 10°C.

“By monitoring water temperatures remotely, we can time our installation of exclusion screens into channels that connect Delta Marsh to the lake,” says DUC research scientist Dale Wrubleski, who leads the work at Delta. “If we do this right before common carp migration, we can cut off their access to the marsh. It saves us time travelling to and from the site to determine water temperatures.”

See it
We won’t drone on about this piece of tech, but Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are allowing DUC conservation staff in Saskatchewan to “see the landscape in higher resolution,” says Lyle Boychuk, a DUC GIS specialist. “The level of detail acquired now with the UAV is mind boggling,” he says.

Once a tool reserved almost exclusively for military use, drones are becoming more common in our skies. These aircrafts are piloted remotely or programmed to fly autonomously.

At DUC, trained staff program UAVs to follow a flight path, and are onsite with a controller to manage the drone at all times. The DUC Saskatchewan team use two drones outfitted with high resolution cameras, Global Positioning Systems (known as GPS) and other tech that collect detailed images and video and produce surface models of the landscape.

UAVs are being used to inspect and monitor DUC projects, map wetlands and document the impacts of illegal wetland drainage works. “And we’re just starting to scratch the surface,” says Boychuk, noting more uses for UAVs will likely be revealed in the near future. This bird’s eye view of the land is not just providing new information, it’s creating efficiencies. In the past, it would take up to a day or more to inspect a project that encompassed 160 acres (64.7 hectares). “Now we can image the entire property within an hour,” says Boychuk. DUC staff use drones to improve the landscape for waterfowl—not clog their skies or cause a feather-bender. “We avoid a collision at all costs,” says Boychuk.

Tried and true conservation tools
Do you remember PalmPilots? How about Betamax? Some innovations don’t stand the test of time. Others do. Here are a few basic tools that waterfowl biologists have used for decades, and will likely use for years to come.

Sometimes getting up close to ducks or other wildlife is a challenge. Researchers, waterfowlers and birders alike use binoculars to watch ducks and other birds without disturbing them.

Inspired by the poultry industry, intrepid waterfowl biologists discovered that if you place one end of a radiator hose to an unhatched duck egg and the other to your eye and hold the egg to the sun, you can see embryo development. They then know approximately when an egg will hatch.

Everyone needs a little help sometimes, and a good bird ID guide is a useful resource to keep on hand and reference after you’ve spotted a duck with your binoculars.

PHOTO CREDIT: Ducks Unlimited Canada

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New Funding Opportunity for Engaging Youth

The Government of Canada has 3-year (2018 to 2021) funding available for organizations to develop and deliver programming for children. This funding will support national-scale, regionally specific programs aimed at educating and engaging children aged 6 to 12 in Canadian wildlife conservation. Overall, this funding will educate kids about protecting Canada’s biodiversity for future generations and the threats, like climate change, that impact it. More specifically, the funding will support programming that achieves the following three goals:

  • increasing kids’ knowledge and awareness of Canada’s wildlife, including threats to wildlife and habitat, and how to conserve and recover species at risk 
  • providing kids with opportunities to get involved in activities that help conserve nature
  • inspiring kids to be active stewards of the natural world

Download the Request for Proposals to learn more about this funding opportunity and how to submit a proposal by Tuesday April 3rd, 2018

Employment programs

Science Horizons Youth Internship Program (Science Horizons)

Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Science Horizons supports green jobs for youth by providing wage subsidies to eligible employers to hire interns in the environmental sector. Interns must be recent college or university graduates in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM).

The program is delivered by our two agents, Environmental Careers Organization Canada (ECO Canada) and Colleges and Institute Canada, who deliver the Environmental Youth Corps and the Clean Tech Internship Program, respectively.

Eligible applicants

  • Individuals
  • Provincial, territorial, municipal and local governments including institutions, agencies and Crown Corporations
  • Local organizations such as community associations and groups, seniors and youth groups, and service clubs
  • Indigenous including First Nations band/tribal councils
  • Non-government organizations including not-for-profit, such as charitable, volunteer organizations and professional associations
  • For-profit organizations such as small businesses, companies, corporations and industry associations
  • Post-secondary educational institutions

Geographic location


Range of funding available

A maximum of $15,000 per year.


To apply or for more information, please contact ECO Canada or Colleges and Institutes Canada.

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Canada’s Investment in Nature is a Clear Commitment to Conservation

Courtesy of the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

There has never been a more critical time than now to step up the protection of Canada’s natural heritage — its lands and waters and the species they sustain. Nature conservation is a concerted effort that falls on the shoulders of governments, conservation organizations, corporations and every Canadian; it cannot be done alone.

The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) applauds the Government of Canada’s recent announcement in Budget 2018 that sees a significant investment of $1.3 billion over five years in conserving nature, a step toward meeting Canada’s Target 1 — a pledge to protect 17 per cent of its land and fresh waters and 10 per cent of its marine and coastal areas by 2020.

We are pleased to see the government’s commitment to invest in and prioritize public, private and Indigenous protected areas. We recognize the critical role of private conservation in the government’s commitment, ensuring Canada has places that support people’s livelihoods, give people the space to experience the outdoors and provide resources for humans and wildlife alike. Along with other conservation organizations, we are ready to do more conservation and do it faster, to help slow or reverse habitat degradation and species decline.

Since 2007, NCC, along with our partners and community land trusts from coast to coast, has conserved more than 430,000 hectares (1 million acres) under the Natural Areas Conservation Program, contributing directly to helping Canada reach its conservation goals. We are pleased to see the government’s contribution of $500 million towards a $1-billion Nature Fund, which encourages collaborative conservation between provinces, territories, corporations and not-for-profit groups to support climate change mitigation and the protection of species at risk.

Federal Budget 2018 is a game-changer; this significant investment is a beacon of hope in a time that needs more good news. NCC is committed to demonstrating our strong leadership as the country’s leading not-for-profit, private land conservation organization, and to make a difference to conservation in Canada, and to support conservation efforts by Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous peoples.

Read the Budget 2018 media release >

Learn more about the Nature Conservancy of Canada’s work in private land conservation >

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Canadians Want More Conservation

Courtesy of Ducks Unlimited Canada, with thanks.

New poll shows overwhelming support for protecting wildlife, habitat and the environment.

Safeguarding wildlife populations. Protecting places where we camp, hike and swim. Addressing concerns about the changing environment. These are some of the top reasons given by Canadians who want to see more done for conservation.

A new survey conducted by Earnscliffe Strategy Group for the Schad Foundation and the Boreal Songbird Initiative found Canadians overwhelmingly support increases in conservation. The survey found:

Support for increasing the proportion of lands protected from development: 87 per cent feel Canada should expand protected lands to at least 17 per cent by 2020. Support is strong among supporters of all three political parties.

Support for increased federal investment: 79 per cent of Canadians feel increased federal funds are needed to create new parks and protected areas.
Broad support for Indigenous-led conservation: 74 per cent of Canadians support Indigenous communities’ creation and management of Indigenous protected areas to conserve forests, wildlife, waters and other special places.

Furthermore, the polls shows Canadians favour a balance between conservation and development in the boreal forest. Respondents believe economic benefits can be generated by developing protected areas.

  • 85 per cent of Canadians feel creating more protected areas will provide certainty for industry
  • 82 per cent think new protected areas can create jobs in rural Canada and attract tourism and investment

We recognize the need to manage natural resources to achieve long-term environmental, social and economic goals for all who live and work in the boreal,” says Les Bogdan, director of regional operations for DUC’s national boreal program. “We know that Canadian jurisdictions need flexible solutions. Established policy and land use plans provide industry with certainty when planning operations. Expanding conservation areas is a win-win.”

Bogdan says the boreal forest gives Canada a unique opportunity to play a leading role in global conservation. ”Canada’s boreal forest houses a quarter of the world’s wetlands and has the ability to store 26 years’ worth of global carbon emissions. These are the reasons DUC is working to conserve at least 660 million acres (267 million hectares) of the best waterfowl habitat in the boreal region.”

Photo Credit: Aerial view of the boreal forest and wetlands in the Northwest Territories./©DUC/Kevin Smith

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Will Quebec’s New Law to Protect Wetlands Inspire Other Provinces?

By Nigel Simms

In an act of political leadership and courage, the province of Quebec has given a degree of hope to all Canadians.

Bill 132, passed unanimously by the Quebec National Assembly on June 16, provides statutory protection for all provincial wetlands and waterways. Quebec is the first province to enact a law that protects these important ecosystems. Many in the conservation world are saying, “thank you.” A more casual observer might ask: “so what?”

Let’s face it. Swamps have an image problem. For that matter, so do marshes and bogs. For many Canadians they’re nothing more than breeding grounds for mosquitoes, or perhaps the setting of an old Hollywood horror movie.

Quebec’s Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and the Fight against Climate Change (yes, it might be the longest job title in Canadian politics) isn’t fooled by the negative image. By enacting a law to protect wetlands, David Heurtel is acknowledging the remarkable benefits of these ecosystems. Wetlands provide essential habitat for wildlife: at least 58 of Canada’s species at risk agree.

Wetlands clean our water. They mitigate the effects of climate change by storing carbon, which is something even the casual observer might like to know. They help prevent floods and droughts; another thing Canadians might be interested in. And wetlands can, in fact, be beautiful places where people enjoy the outdoors.

Yet despite the benefits, we’ve successfully eliminated up to 90 per cent of wetlands in some areas of Canada. Your typical Canadian, if they think about wetlands at all, usually tries to avoid them. Some of us are pretty good at getting rid of them entirely.

The Quebec law immediately changes this relationship. The vision is “no net loss” of wetlands. To achieve that, the Act respecting the conservation of wetlands and bodies of water recognizes the important role played by watershed organizations and municipalities. These people are the frontlines of sustainable development, trying to balance the needs of development and conservation in their areas. The Act also proposes a streamlined environmental approval process. It is groundbreaking legislation that, if properly enforced, has the potential to benefit agricultural, forestry, municipal and environmental interests. Imagine that.

It’s intriguing to see Quebec take the legislative lead in wetland conservation. We are a few months away from celebrating the 80th anniversary of Ducks Unlimited Canada. The first Canadian wetland conservation project was created in Manitoba in 1938. This is the birthplace of wetland conservation, yet from the Prairie perspective we lobby, cajole and wait for something, anything, that approaches the spirit of the Quebec legislation.

Other provinces have made significant strides, although none match the efforts in Quebec. Ontario announced the details of a new wetland conservation strategy in July. The plan commits to halting the net loss of wetlands by 2025 and achieving a net gain by 2030.

Alberta, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. have wetland conservation policies in place. Maybe the move by Quebec will inspire other provinces to a greater legislative commitment. We can only hope.

Nigel Simms is DUC’s National director communications and marketing. He works from Oak Hammock Marsh, Manitoba.

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