The Case for Wetlands: Big Lake, Alberta

ID# 897600
DECEMBER 4, 1996

Environmental protection and preservation has come very lately to the political and public agenda in Canada. In a country suffering from an “abundance of riches”, the need to safeguard our land, water and air quality has not been seen as a pressing and substantial issue until recent times. In Alberta, and the rest of Canada, conserving wetlands would have been seen as almost laughable until as late as a decade ago. The entire driving force behind western Canada’s existence was development. Large parcels of land were simply given away as homesteads to promote growth, agriculture and progress. This “pioneer spirit” underlines our legal system and has forged the principles underlying most Alberta law. As environmental concerns about conservation come to light, they are forced into surrender by a legal system that has very little room for “anti-development” views. The expansionist vision that the west was built on is in sharp relief to the realities of sustainable growth, urban development and the complete overload of our environment due to lack of integrated planning, legislation and information.

In the matter of wetlands, all of these problems are concentrated as they directly impact on economic development, transportation, agriculture and any other matter involving water resources. This is further compounded by the lack of regard and understanding of wetlands as a natural resource and the nature of “pro-draining” legislation and incentives in our province. In attempting to reconcile all of the competing interests, jurisdictional issues, departmental issues and the labyrinth of legislation in regards to wetlands, it is rudely apparent that our current system is not nearly adequate to accomplish the necessary goals of wetland protection, nor the goals of most environmental protection. However well intentioned, current protective legislation has been piecemeal at best and any compelling power it does have has been gradually chiseled away by interest groups and economic pressure.

To fully understand the implications of the deficiencies in our current regime, one must only examine the circumstances surrounding the controversial Big Lake area four miles north of the City of Edmonton. The location of the lake has made it especially vulnerable to development and abuse at the municipal and regional level. Named “Lake of Clear Waters”1 by the native populations of the area, Big Lake has barely survived a 60 year bombardment of sewage and waste disposal, unmitigated industrial usage, agricultural development, urban growth and disturbance through extensive land and river bank clearing.2

The challenges that Big Lake faces can be directly attributed to the division of powers in regards to the area, the lack of on-point legislation to protect and develop the area in a prudent manner and the complete lack of integration and information sharing. The first problematic area is that of the division of Federal and Provincial powers, and delegated municipal powers in relation to wetlands, wildlife and environmental protection.

The federal areas of power relevant to Big Lake are, for the most part, found in section 91 of the Constitution Act and include inland fisheries, navigation, and may include the ‘peace, order and good government’ general powers of the federal government if Big Lake were to be determined to be of national importance. The federal government also has the power under section 132 of the Constitution Act to implement treaties signed between the British Empire and foreign countries. The Migratory Birds Convention Act, passed in 1917, may give the federal government power over wetlands as a habitat for migratory birds, insofar as regulation under this Act “prohibits the pollution through oil or any other substance harmful to migratory birds or any area frequented by migratory birds.”3 Any further regulations falling under the umbrella of this Act must be strictly tied to the power and intention of the Act itself. Under the Act, the Governor General in Council does have the ability to “make such regulations as are deemed expedient to protect” migratory birds and to carry out the intentions of the Convention. However, this cannot be seen as an empowerment to protect wetlands, as the Convention was drafted in terms of protecting the actual bird population, not their habitat, however odd that may seem.4 The fisheries power is somewhat less limited and the Fisheries Act does deal with the protection of fish populations and their habitats. Fishbearing waters are broadly defined and would include Big Lake spawning and living habitat for several species of fish. It should be noted that the federal government has been reluctant to assert control on inland fisheries of such a “limited significance” being neither commercially valuable nor great in number. Also, the provincial government does have jurisdiction over fish and the federal government has been more than willing to allow them to exercise sole control over wetland fisheries. Navigation is also a federal power and being as the test is whether or not a log can be floated down a river to determine if it is navigable, this power could also apply to Big Lake and the corresponding river basin system.

Several programs and policies have developed out of these federal heads of power such as the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, which is not a treaty but an ‘agreement’ to sustain waterfowl by preserving waterfowl habitat. It lacks legislative power but as a well-funded “joint venture” between Canada and the United States, it has reached significant success in protecting a large amount of waterfowl habitat, including 1.5 million hectares of wetlands.5 Wildlife legislation, Federal Wetlands Policy and the like. However, due to the jurisdictional limits placed on the federal government, they have been of limited use outside of strictly federal areas of power.

The provincial heads of power more closely tie into the issues facing Big Lake. The Water Resources Act, the new Water Act, Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act (AEPEA), the Irrigation and Drainage Acts and the recent Special Places legislation all deal with issues relating to Big Lake but none of them is especially helpful in protecting Big Lake as a wetland in a binding manner. For example, the Special Places process is lengthy and the final result is not binding. An area may be nominated (as in fact, Big Lake has), take several years to be established as a “Special Place” and then may have the boundaries and land use changed as a result of government requests or outside pressure. It is rather a “paper tiger” in terms of the protection it affords to sensitive areas and the wildlife that live there.

On the municipal level, the new Municipal Government Act, not only does not have provisions for protecting environmentally sensitive areas, it drastically restricts a municipality’s ability to control land usage for environmental purposes. Any restrictions on land development for “protection purposes” may be found to be improper under the provisions of the new Act.

The status quo for the protection of wetlands in Alberta is embarrassingly inadequate. Any legislation that attempts to protect the environment either lacks substantial enforcement power or has been watered down through “mitigation” of harmful effects of projects, leaving habitats such as Big Lake without clear remedy within our current regime.

The lake is bordered by four municipalities, the City of Edmonton, the City of St. Albert, the County of Parkland and the Municipal District of Sturgeon. Each of these areas is significantly different in population size, predominant land use, financial position and demographics. Each has relied on the lake for different purposes, and each has burdened the area with use that has altered the Big Lake habitat and encroached upon the lake’s ability to support vegetation and wildlife in the area.

In the early 1900s, Big Lake and its surrounding river system, including the Sturgeon River and Atim Creek supplied the surrounding residents with drinking water, water for their cattle, irrigation, a source of water recreation and other household purposes. It also provided protection from the flood cycle of the Sturgeon River System that would have terrible effects on the farming activities in the area. The area also had an abundance of waterfowl and upland birds such as partridge of pheasant.

As the surrounding municipal populations increased, so did the activity around the lake. Agricultural activity intensified and with it so did the use of fertilizers and herbicides, washed into the river system through groundwater and irrigation. Development of the plentiful sour and natural gas, as well as oil reserves in the area disturbed the land and made use of the water in the river system for oil field flooding.6 In fact, as early as 1967, 3740 acre feet of water was withdrawn for industrial purposes and only 205 acre feet were returned to the system, with no constraints on the quality of that water. This may seem like an insignificant amount, but the river system itself is very small, with a very low rate of flow, sometimes as low as 35 cubic feet per second.7

By 1969, there were in excess of 25 industrial users of water in the Sturgeon River Basin system, including; 16 oil and natural gas companies,6 lumber, concrete and other building materials manufacturers, 3 dairies and a poultry producer.8 All of these users took water directly from the river system with a provincial water license, and dumped waste back into the system, many with no treatment whatsoever. It must be remembered that the dumping of effluent had very limited regulation at the time.

By far, the greatest problem for the Big Lake habitat began with and continues due to surrounding urban development. Not only were the existing municipalities growing, but several “acreage estate” developments such as Silver Chief Estates and Big Lake Estates, as well as trailer park areas cropped up in the vicinity. There was a great demand for “bedroom communities” in the Edmonton metropolitan area and much provincial funding went towards encouraging and aiding the advancement of such areas as Stony Plain and Spruce Grove. Big Lake became the dumping site for sewage and waste for all of these developments. The cities of St. Albert, Spruce Grove and Stony Plain were the largest offenders, St. Albert dumping 270 million gallons of sewage in 1975.9 Prior to 1962, St. Albert also used the river for the town water supply, however the water levels fluctuated so greatly one winter that the river froze to the bottom and the town had to rely on the reserves for the rest of the winter. The City of St. Albert continued to dump their sewage until 1975. In fact, St. Albert, Spruce Grove, Stony Plain, Morinville, Bon Accord, Gibbons, Onoway and Winterburn all dumped or continue to dump their sewage into the lake or the surrounding rivers and creeks that form part of the Sturgeon River Basin system. In 1976, a study on potable water was done on Big Lake which resulted in some strong recommendations. It appeared that although no community was dumping an excessive amount of sewage for its size, the combined effect resulted in some severe water quality problems.10 In fact, the dumping of sewage in Atim Creek, a river flowing into Big Lake, was 40% greater than could be successfully “flushed” from the system (no pun intended) during the entire open-water season, from May until October.11 This was of great concern because of the number of cattle and waterfowl found dead of botulism and other unknown causes along the waterway during the summer months.12 Although botulism does occur naturally among bird populations, it does not among livestock and the studies pointed to the spring release of sewage the most likely cause.13 The experts conducting the water quality study strongly urged immediate action to combat the problem,

Big Lake is a critical area in terms of water pollution – it is our strongest recommendation that preliminary steps be initiated immediately to develop a long range program and a master plan – the regional concept of collecting and treating sewage and/or augmenting river flows must be considered.14

This problem was compounded by the directing of urban stormwater directly into the system, periodic sewage lagoon releases and some intense beaver activity causing great fluctuations in the water level.

The historical 1:100 flood high-water cycles were now repeating once every five years, creating further problems with agricultural chemical run-off and erosion along the banks of the river system. Government aid programs encouraged farmers to increase their usable land holdings and with the help of municipalities, began stripping the trees foliage abutting the banks of the river. During the late 1960s, government farm subsidies and crop insurance were based on arable acreage. Even if you didn’t actually plant a poorly situated acre each year, if it was possible to farm it, you could claim it for subsidy or grain quota.15 As many as 3500 acres would be flooded on the five year cycle, and much of it was newly cleared land, making it all the more vulnerable to erosion. Soil and silt were washed from the fields, into the lake and river, altering the banks and water depth.16

In the last ten years, most of the surrounding municipalities have hooked onto the Edmonton Water and Sewage system and no longer dump into the Big Lake river system. However, several of the smaller, rural townships still release sewage, once a year during the spring after storing it in settling ponds and many of the acreages and farms have open sewage fields, which end up in the system eventually. The storm sewers of St. Albert, Spruce Grove and Stony Plain still dump directly into the system, several golf courses have developed in the area, causing more fertilizer to leach into the system. The levels of phosphates and nitrogen in Big Lake are extremely high and there has been considerable difficulty with periodic “algae blooms.”17

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Big Lake began attracting attention for use as a highly valuable recreational area, rather than just the cesspool for surrounding municipalities. There was a frenzy of studies, activities and reports entailing a wide variety of possibilities for developments developed and forwarded by the Canadian Wildlife Service. Within this concept was a plan to use the area as an immense recreational, camping and educational area, akin to that of Stanley Park in Vancouver or Waskana Lake in Regina.18 It was a scheme of immense proportions and would have the effect of putting Big Lake in quasi-National Park regime. The basis for such and ambition plan was the untapped potential and commercial viability of such a venture,

Big Lake is a good waterfowl producer but it is much more important as a staging area and migration stop in both spring and fall… It is utilized by thousands of ducks, geese and swans… 50 to 60 hunters per day use the lake during hunting season… university study groups, bird clubs, natural history clubs, Boy Scouts, boater, picnickers and sightseers also use the area extensively.19

The Wildlife Service took the position that there had to be some integrated approach to protection and development of this significant wetland. It took an incredibly bold stand in terms of how this could possibly be achieved.

From a recreational standpoint Big Lake takes on an exceptionally high value both aesthetically and economically. From the viewpoint of our Department and of our stated policy, this project should command considerable priority…there appears no other area that rates such priority in three prairie provinces…

The project was ambitious in both scope and optimism. It suggested that the only way proper use of the Big Lake area would occur was through the combined efforts of the Edmonton Regional Planning Commission, the Town of St. Albert, Alberta Fish and Wildlife, Department of Water Resources, Ducks Unlimited, the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce and many other governmental and non-governmental organizations.20 It envisioned a very strict division of land uses to protect sensitive areas and a highly developed commercial recreational uses in a wildlife preserve setting.

Of course, $300 million dollars in 1996 is a considerable amount of money to expect taxpayers to pay to foot the bill for any project, let alone the astronomical sum it was in 1969! The report was never acted upon, as it was more of a “champagne wishes and caviar dreams” plan, but one wonders what the current state of affairs might have been had it been implemented. The most significant thing about the report is that it, for the first time, outlines the importance of this wetland environment and points out that the only way to possibly protect and develop it properly is to have municipalities, the provincial and federal governments and many private organizations acting in concert with the same common goal. The failure of such a plan to be implemented displays the complete lack of integration with regards to environmental issues inherent in our legal framework and municipal planning.

A subsequent report was done by the City of Edmonton, focusing on the vegetation and plant life in the Big Lake area. It noted that Big Lake was a sensitive area and suggested great care in its development,

Wetland units are considered the most sensitive to disturbance… Modification by the water table through drainage or damming for road construction can have drastic effects on species composition or structure of adjoining vegetation…21

The report contained several recommendations, among them that, “Wildlife resources of the Big Lake area should be assessed prior to any development… prohibition of vehicular access along the shoreline… strict controls so as to maintain its high capability for waterfowl production.”22

In the period between 1969 and 1985, 29 studies and reports were done by 19 different departments and government agencies with regard to Big Lake. This in itself is not surprising, however, what is surprising is that none of these reports ever refers to another. It suggests a complete lack of co-operation and communication between the different governmental units that lead to a lack of a composite approach to development of Big Lake and its environs. This lack of integration is not only inefficient, as it duplicates itself in many areas, it is ineffective. As each department dealt with their primary are of responsibility and interest, they failed to take into account the linkage between economic, transportation, recreational, scientific and industrial uses, their combined effort and the level of collaboration required to make pragmatic and prudent choices in developing such a sensitive area. Each department and interest group appears to suffer from an acute case of tunnel-vision, concerned only about their artificially limited domain, ignoring the reality of the “domino effect” decisions in one area often created in others. There was no effort to incorporate the information of all of the assorted reports and studies into one comprehensive report to form the basis of an integrated plan.

Finally, in 1989, the Edmonton Metropolitan Regional Planning Commission (EMRPC), embarked on an extensive planning study for Big Lake and the surrounding shoreline. “This study was designed to culminate in a Final Plan that [could] be implemented by a number of federal, provincial, regional and local authorities, as well as local landowners and other private groups and individuals.”23 It appeared as though the seed that had been planted in 1969, by the Canadian Wildlife Service had finally come to fruition and we would see the all-encompassing approach to Big Lake that was required. The approach involved several government and non-government organizations,

the Canadian Wildlife Service, Fish and Wildlife of Alberta, Forestry, Lands and Wildlife, Alberta Environment, Alberta Recreation and Parks, Alberta Culture, Alberta Tourism and regional authorities such as the EMRPC and the sewer and water service commissions, the local municipalities… private industry such as oil companies, landowners, recreational groups and Ducks Unlimited Canada…24

Not only did this plan wisely encourage participation by all the competing interest groups it actually provided for the ultimate implementation of the final plan, with definite plans and timelines. It was an idea whose time had desperately arrived and it appeared that Big Lake would finally get the attention and protection it warranted. The objectives of the Big Lake Plan were clearly outlined as follows;

1. To direct, though this plan, lake and land use change to those wildlife/waterfowl, flood prone and agricultural/backshore areas that can withstand change in use, and to plan this change in harmony with the areas existing land use pattern, cultural/historical resources and infrastructure.
2. To develop, through private sector liaison and public sector liaison (all levels of government), a variety of recreational opportunities, viewing areas for controlled public access – and a nature interpretation centre.
3. To conserve, though land use control, valuable farmland in those areas with excellent soil quality and farmland assessment in agricultural communities – and to consider land use changes in areas that are not part of those communities.
4. To conserve and enhance, through legislation, policy and action, the most valuable habitat areas for existing and future wildlife populations, especially waterfowl.
5. To protect, through legislation, policy and action, environmentally sensitive areas for overall ecological balance.
6. To maintain, though private and public sector liaison and policy the visual attractiveness of the area.
7. To allow recreational viewing and wildlife management opportunities related to those areas that can withstand this use.
8. To ensure… that any future change in resource extractive operations and installation will take place only in those areas with appropriate locational and/or site characteristics…
9. To ensure, through legislation and policy, that any change to existing utilities and transportation facilities takes place in a manner which is environmentally sensitive.
10. To organize and co-ordinate all of the competing interests affecting Big Lake and its shoreland by working with all private and public groups and ensuring that implementation policies are followed.
11. To encourage… investment…
12. To encourage environmentally friendly sensitive shoreland development… through the formulation of provincial and regional policies, actions, and guidelines through the development of local municipal plans, policies and bylaws.25

As one can imagine, this plan was a tremendous undertaking by the EMRPC, integrating 3 levels of government, the departments within each, private landowners, public interest groups and private sector businesses. A specific policy/action plan was advanced with regard to Lake surface and shoreline management, waterfowl enhancement, flood risk areas, sewage and waste disposal, energy resources conservation, recreation and transportation issues. The plan also set out a procedure for implementation, review and compliance policy for the municipalities. Although the EMRPC had no financial interest in the plan, they could facilitate the organization of financial resources and they also performed a “watchdog” function in terms of Regional and Municipal plans conforming to the Big Lake Plan.26

The EMRPC released the plan which outlined recreational and development plans for the area, identifying extremely sensitive areas that would not be amenable to any alteration, however, the plan did not intend to allow “for most types of development in these areas, provided it is planned in accordance with the identified sensitivities.”27 Although this did not go as far as some naturalists desired, it did take into account some planning process for land use in the Big Lake area, something that had not occurred previously, allowing for the degradation of the area without any formal consideration on a regional area. The Big Lake Plan was to be fully implemented within five years, at which time the plan was to be reviewed and altered if necessary. The plan would only have effect so long as the municipalities were in agreement with it, thereby not fettering the discretion of the Council, and an Advisory Council would deal with any changes in surrounding municipal and regional planning that were incompatible with the Big Lake Plan. Although it was not ideal, it had the mark of a well thought out and negotiated agreement, no group was entirely happy with it but each had been able to express their views and have them taken into account. The plan was finalized in 1989, and should have been substantially implemented by 1995, however little was accomplished.

Unfortunately, the provincial government eliminated the EMRPC in 1993, replacing it with the Capital Region Forum, a much smaller, cheaper office, not made up of elected officials as the EMRPC had been, with little support of the surrounding municipalities. In effect, this terminated the Big Lake Plan’s implementation on a regional scale. There was no longer a facilitator with the responsibility of the EMRPC, there was no enforcement office for regional planning, and no Advisory Council to adjudicate and reconcile competing interests in the plan. It was a tragic blow for Big Lake and for regional planning as a whole. Each municipality still uses the Big Lake Plan as a “guideline” but they are free to ignore it in any circumstances they see necessary. The entire region, especially the area surrounding Big Lake has returned to the starting point of, no integrated regional planning, no co-operation between municipal, provincial and federal governments and their agents, and the competing interest of private owners, recreational users and industry.

The latest in a long line of inappropriate development in the Big Lake area is the proposed “West Boundary Road”, an eventual 6-lane highway, bridging Sturgeon River and marching through the sensitive area a mere 350 meters east of the lake. This is a project that has been on the City of St. Albert’s agenda for over 25 years in some form or another. The need for the road was based on transportation studies conducted in June of 1976 then updated in 1991.28 As St. Alberta has been primarily a bedroom community for Edmonton since the 1940s, there as an increasing amount of traffic and congestion on routes heading into the downtown core. It was determined that the 50,000 population mark, a number that the population is quickly approaching, St. Albert would require some alternate and expanded routes into Edmonton. With most of the residential development occurring in the northern half of the city, options for expanding access from this area of the city were primary considerations. Essentially, there were two options available; the first was an eastern by-pass road coming across the north end of St. Albert and tying directly into 127 Street to downtown. This was held to be the preferable route as it was shorter, less expensive to construct and would serve as a truck route to the 500 acre industrial park, removing this heavy traffic from the center of town. This was also preferable because of the prevailing winds that blow from west to east, carrying the fumes from traffic away from residential areas. The second option was that of a western by-pass route, crossing the Sturgeon River to the east of Big Lake. The construction costs would be greater because of the river crossing, not once, but three times, with each possible expansion and the increased distance. The prevailing winds would also have the tendency to carry the exhaust through the City rather than away from it. No environmental concerns were addressed at the time of the 1976 studies, the only reference to environmental impact was a positive one in that “noise and pollution would be taken away from the center of town.”29 The City of St. Albert General Plan of 1977 stated that;

A St. Albert bypass roadway is also recognized as a means of minimizing anticipated increases in inter-city traffic congestion. Alternative routes to the east and west of St. Albert have been identified. An eastern alignment is preferable in that:
a) it would be considerably shorter than the western route.
b) it would provide a more direct access to the center of Edmonton for bypass traffic,
c) it would not concentrate St. Albert and bypass traffic volumes in the north west corner of Edmonton to the same degree as a western route, and
d) it would not place the same constraint on future residential development of the north west sector of St. Albert as a west bypass.
The City will therefore make every effort to expedite funding and scheduling commitments by the Provincial government, preferable for an east bypass.30

A referendum was conducted in 1980 that came out in support of the bypass plan, at a time when the eastern bypass route was seen as the most probable course of action. However, it soon became apparent that the City of Edmonton was not prepared to make the necessary upgrades to 127 Street that make the eastern bypass a viable route. In fact, the Edmonton transportation plan showed the West bypass as the definite plan, linking into 184 Street and the proposed ring road. It is not apparent from the records whether or not this was the sole reason for St. Albert Council settling on this choice, however, it appears that Eastern bypass option has been completely discarded. It is difficult to follow the logic of this choice as the Eastern bypass is a full 3.5 kilometers shorter and any necessary river crossing would be at a much less sensitive area. Regardless of where the road is situated, the City of Edmonton will have to agree to update 127 Street or 184 Street, and the proposed ring road is no longer an issue as it was omitted from the 1995 Transportation Plan for the City of Edmonton. In fact, the Department of Transportation stated that the purpose of the bypass was to “operate as a free flowing facility… right into the ‘Ring’.”31 As Edmonton’s Ring Road has been a project-in-waiting for 30 years, it is odd that Council has not considered that the entire project should be re-evaluated. Residential development has occurred in both the northeast and northwest of Edmonton, making the Eastern bypass available for a large number of commuters with a more direct route to the downtown core and the University area, the destination of the majority of commuters. The western route would cause much disruption in many residential areas due to road widening required for “feeders” into the bypass whereas the majority of the routes required for the eastern are in relatively sparsely populated areas and the necessary improvements could be made with greater ease.

In the face of all of these circumstances, the City of St. Albert still asserts that the West Boundary Road is still the best alternative and is forging on with the proposal. Moreover, they are only lately considering the environmental impact on Big Lake as a wetland resource and important wildlife habitat. In fact, even in the 1983 transportation services report, the environmental issues were limited to “recognition of the fact that excessive noise is both a health hazard and source of annoyance, it is an objection of the plan to minimize the impact of transportation related noise upon the inhabitants of St. Albert.”32 This quote encompasses the entire “Environmental impact” segment of the Municipal Plan. As the Red Willow Urban Park was developed by the City it took into account the West By-pass option and was included in the plan. However, a study listed as “Appendix B” of the Red Willow Park Plan strongly asserted that the bypass would cause irreparable harm to an already overtaxed wetland.

In the spring of this year, IBI Group, a collection of “environmental consultants” was hired to conduct an “Environmental Impact Assessment” of the West Boundary Road for the City of St. Albert. In developing the Draft Terms of Reference for the report were designed as a “preemptive strike” for the provincial and federal EIAs. Although the report was not required at such an early stage, the scope of the EIA was to follow “a similar level of detail as is required by provincial/federal law.”33 The guidelines for provincial Environmental Impact Assessments are listed under Part II of the Alberta Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act. Paraphrased below, section 47 specifies what shall be required:

a) description and analysis for need of the project.
b) site selection procedure and consideration of alternate sites.
c) baseline environmental conditions and areas of major concern.
d) potential positive and negative environmental, economic, cultural impact including, regional, temporal and spatial considerations.
e) analysis for impacts on areas discussed in sub (d).
f) plans to mitigate.
g) human health.
h) alternatives to activity including not proceeding.
i) plans developed or to be developed to monitor environmental impact and monitor proposed mitigation efforts.
j) contingency plans if unpredicted negative impacts occur.

The report also required public consideration and the approval of the terms of reference prior to the report being submitted the Director under section 46. The general understanding of those members of the public that were aware that an “Environmental Impact Assessment” was being done on the area was that this report would be in substantial compliance with the requirements under AEPEA. The report had the title, used the same terms and format of an EIA under AEPEA, and it would only be reasonable to assume that the City would surely want to conduct and pay for only one comprehensive study. However, on October 22, 1996, a public meeting was held, facilitated by IBI Group, that brought some disturbing issues to light. The report did not even approximate the detail required by section 47 of AEPEA. It was deficient in the following areas;

1) The analysis of need was based solely on the City’s previous transportation studies, the most recent one being 1991, and did not contain any independent research.
2) The Terms of Reference did not allow the consultants to consider and alternative sites, nor did they outline the site selection process as required under s. 47(b). Only a “no road” option was examined.
3) No examination of baseline conditions or the cumulative effects of the road in addition to existing problems in the Big Lake area were examined. (Sub (c)).
4) No plans for monitoring environmental impact or success of the proposed mitigation were put forward.
5) No contingency plans for unanticipated negative impacts were discussed.

In addition to these complete omissions of issues to be considered under the statute, the study failed to examine the additional problem of leachate from an old landfill site, directly over an aquifer and in close proximity to the proposed crossing. It was stated at the public meeting that this was an area of “unknown concern” and required further study. It is important to note that no field work was conducted by the consultants, rather, they relied on reports done for formulation of the Big Lake Plan and information from various government departments and naturalists groups. The report also looked into the impact of the first stage of construction only, not the added problem of subsequent construction that would be required to complete the project. In effect, the entire construction process would be ongoing, requiring three road widenings, three river crossings and additional “mitigative” measures to deal with the negative impacts at each instance. No study was done to see if the habitat could withstand disturbances of such a large scale in succession. The consultants were sent back to conduct “further study” but there appears to be a certain odour clinging to an EIA that is not truly an EIA, and even those who are not aware of the environmental issues feel as though it may have been a colossal waste of tax dollars to conduct a study that is useless for any purpose other than buttressing Council’s argument that this road is needed and should be constructed at all costs. A cost, incidentally, that ranges anywhere from $60 million to ten times that amount. It is currently being planned as a “road from nowhere to nowhere” as neither the City of Edmonton nor the Municipal District of Sturgeon have any apparent plans to carry to the road into their boundaries at this time.

The future of Big Lake is entirely uncertain. The only certainty is that one of the ten most significant wetland habitats is itself becoming endangered, and along with it several of its inhabitants. For example, 20% of Canada’s ducks make their home in Alberta, Big Lake playing host to tens of thousands of them each year. There are 19 species of ducks that are at risk in Alberta and many of them have had as much as an 88% decline in their numbers in the last 40 years.34 The biggest problems facing these waterfowl is nest failure, that is, only 1 in 10 nests successfully produces surviving ducklings. Big Lake is an immensely important breeding, nesting and staging area for these waterfowl. Information from naturalist groups was used to determine that nearly 100 nest sites would be wiped out by the proposed boundary road, not to mention the effects of construction and traffic noise and pollution on the existing nesting patterns of these birds.

The ducks are only an example of the destruction being done to Big Lake as Big Lake is an example of the complete lack of protection for wetlands in Alberta. One can only conclude that the complete lack of co-operation among various agencies and groups, combined with the absence of any on-point protective legislation calls for significant reform in this area of law and administration. Current federal and provincial legislation, including the new Water Act deals with wetlands in a cursory, compartmentalized manner if at all and are of limited use in protecting Big Lake or any other wetland. Until a concerted effort is made in dealing with this inadequacy, municipalities and government departments will continue to have a tunnel-visioned perspective in dealing with the environmental impact of development. The same kind of limited thinking demonstrated by the City consultants at they studied only the area immediately adjacent to the bridge crossing, not taking into account the lake in conducting their “EIA that was not an EIA”. In times of fiscal hardship, no level of government is rushing to the table, money in fist, to claim its area of jurisdiction and responsibility. There must be some mechanism for integrated municipal planning, co-operation between departments responsible for wildlife, parks, water resources, transportation, industry and a method for implementing the kind of comprehensive work the EMRPC was trying to accomplish with the Big Lake Plan. Many have referred to the Big Lake issue as a purely “local problem” and in this manner have done a great disservice to the region as well as wetlands in general.

Our current system has weaknesses that cannot be addressed by an attempt to patch together components of municipal, provincial and federal laws and regulations in an attempt to “blanket” environmental issues. This is especially vivid in the area of wetland resources, the “underdog” resource in its perceived value and usefulness. It would be seen as a political non-starter to limit development, agriculture and commercial development for protection of wetlands which have not enjoyed the popularity of other natural habitats and have been described as shallow bodies of “dirty water usually full of weeds and insects or aquatic life where one would not consider swimming”.35 As the value of such areas becomes more well-known, perhaps the political climate will exist that will allow for the required protection of wetlands that is unavailable now. In the case of Big Lake, one can only rely on the “long term low priority” of the proposed West Boundary Road under the provincial highway connector program and the lack of necessary funds for construction.

Only when the water is not drinkable, the air is not breathable and the land cannot sustain wildlife or the human species, will man realize that he cannot eat money.36

1. Oral history of William J. Veness, 78 year resident of St. Albert and former mayor of 16 years.
2. Edmonton Regional Planning Commission, Report on Big Lake Recreation Area, 1971
3. David Percy, Wetlands and the Law in the Prairie Provinces of Canada (Environmental Law Centre [Alberta] Society, 1993) at p. 66.
4. Ibid note 3, at p. 67.
5. Ibid note 3, at p. 77.
6. Alberta Bureau of Statistics, Department of Industry and Development, Industrial Water Use Survey, Sturgeon Basin Study Area, September 1969.
7. Alberta Department of the Environment, Water Resources Management, Technical Services Division, St. Albert Floodplain Study, November 1990.
8. Ibid note 6, at p. 23.
9. Underwood McLelland and Associates, A Study on Sewerage systems in the Sturgeon River Drainage Basin (Alberta Environment, Pollution Control Division, 1975). 10. Stanley & Associates Engineering, Big Lake Water Treatability Study (Department of Regional Economic Expansion).
11. Alberta Environment, Atim Creek Study, June 1978, p. 27.
12. Ibid note 11 at p. 21.
13. Ibid note 11 at p. 29.
14. Ibid note 11 at p. 5.
15. Ibid note 9 at p. 17.
16. P. W. Rakowski and D.R. Jurick, A Review of Legislation to Determine its Effect on Migratory Bird Habitat (Canadian Wildlife Service, 1986).
17. Ibid note 6 at p. 9.
18. C.R. Surrendi, Canadian Wildlife Service, An Integrated Land Use Concept for Big Lake, Alberta.
19. Ibid note 14 at p. 2 and 3.
20. Ibid note 14 at p. 3.
21. City of Edmonton, Alberta Department of Environment, Vegetation Pretyping of the Annexed
Lands of Edmonton and Detailed Environment Assessment of the Big Lake Area, 1984, p. 45.
22. Ibid note 17 at p. 48.
23. Edmonton Metropolitan Regional Planning Commission, Big Lake Plan, 1989, p.1.
24. Ibid note 23 at p. 1.
25. Ibid note 23 at p. 1-2.
26. Ibid note 23 at VIII, 1, a.
27. Ibid note 23 at VII, 2, d.
28. St. Albert Area Transportation Study Report (June 1976).
City of St. Albert Transportation Study Update Final Report (July 1991).
29. Ibid note 28.
30. St. Albert Planning Services. City of St. Albert General Plan, June 1977 at p. 46.
31. The City of St. Albert, Transportation Study Update Final Report, p. 23.
32. City of St. Albert Municipal Plan, 1983, Chapter 7.2.3.
33. City of St. Albert Proposed West Boundary Road Draft Terms of Reference, June 1995, p. 3.
34. Information from the Ducks Unlimited web page at
35. Re the Queen and Very (1983) 149 D.L.R. (3d) 688 (Alta. Q.B.) at 703
36. Native proverb.



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Elke Blodgett