Winner of FCM’s 2022 Sustainable Communities Awards' natural asset management category
While natural assets such as wetlands are known to provide both tangible and intangible benefits for communities, their value can be hard to put a number on. The Alberta municipality of Parkland County has been experiencing both extreme weather events and degradation of natural infrastructure, and they wanted to evaluate the costs and benefits of maintaining and restoring wetlands and other ecosystems. By partnering at the watershed level with local NGOs and academia, they were able to complete a project involving mapping, modelling and analysis to better understand the value of these ecosystems and build a quantifiable business case for preserving and restoring them not only within their own borders, but across municipal boundaries as well.
Parkland County is a municipality with a diversity of landscapes. Its eastern areas experience a lot of pressure from urban development, while the western side is more agricultural, with plenty of farm and ranch land. From an ecological perspective, the county encompasses a number of ecosystems including wetlands, rivers and small lakes, thereby hosting a great deal of potential habitat and biodiversity. However, the municipality has seen a 56 percent loss of wetland area between 1950 and 2013, and only 53 percent of its riparian areas remain intact.
The county overlaps with the Modeste watershed, an area of about 4,800 square kilometres upstream of Edmonton that drains into the North Saskatchewan River and influences the drinking water of more than 1.6 million people.
In recent years, Parkland County and the surrounding region have experienced a number of extreme weather events, including:
- Large-scale wildfires in disturbed peatlands and forests,
- Flooding of roadways, private properties and agricultural land,
- Disruptions to water treatment from high volumes of contaminated run-off due to large storms, and
- Drought conditions resulting in major agricultural losses.
Not only do such events affect residents’ quality of life, but they impact service delivery and increase costs.
Given these challenges and the rising threat of climate change, the municipality and its partners posed the question: To what degree do natural assets such as wetlands help mitigate the effects of extreme weather events and landscape changes over time? And how might municipalities improve this natural infrastructure to support climate resilience and reduce servicing costs?
Too often, natural spaces such as wetlands are seen as unproductive land that’s ripe for development. However, evidence suggests that beyond their intrinsic value, these ecosystems provide quantifiable social, economic and structural value to the local and global community, including:
- Water filtration and retention
- Increased water storage capacity for droughts
- Lower risk of flooding
- Carbon sequestration
- Increased wildlife habitat and biodiversity
Parkland Country and its partners wanted to do the math on this value and to evaluate the costs and benefits of preserving and improving wetlands and other natural infrastructure on agricultural land as they relate to municipal servicing, agricultural production and the community as a whole.
The goal was to quantify related cost savings, efficiency and other metrics in terms that would make decision-making easier for municipal stakeholders, and to stress the potential negative impacts should further ecosystem losses occur.
The project was based on a recognition that in order to successfully achieve environmental goals, environmental considerations must be integrated into all aspects of land use and service delivery provided by a municipality. In addition, as many municipal decisions are made through the budgeting process, it is important to demonstrate cost savings or cost efficiency when highlighting the value of natural infrastructure to improve service delivery and climate resilience.
The fact that natural ecosystems do not coincide with municipal boundaries was a factor as well. Changes to the land in one municipality will ultimately affect others within that watershed, which means such projects benefit from being conducted at a regional or collaborative level.
The importance of natural assets is expected to increase under a changing climate, and therefore climate data and related considerations were incorporated into the analysis.
The plan consisted of two phases. The first was to understand ecosystem value and the costs of restoration. The second was to build a quantifiable business case for using natural infrastructure solutions to help solve ongoing drainage issues. The two phases included:
- Mapping and modelling current natural assets and the impact of a range of scenarios — previously implemented restoration projects, further natural asset restoration and further natural asset loss — on water quality and quantity;
- Quantifying the actual costs of natural asset restoration on the ground;
- Analyzing the potential cost versus benefit of natural asset restoration on municipal servicing for road maintenance and water treatment, agricultural insurance and public recreation;
- Identifying priority assets for restoration to meet municipal water quality goals in the most cost- and land-effective manner; and
- Mapping drainage issue hotspots and quantifying the potential costs and benefits of restoring natural assets upstream to improve service levels, reduce road maintenance costs and adapt to climate change.
The project revealed a range of barriers to natural asset management for the county, such as:
- A lack of standardization for developing natural asset inventories, valuation and financial reporting;
- Limited staff capacity and resources, a common issue in smaller municipalities in Alberta;
- Conflicting policies and regulations that could indirectly encourage the elimination of natural assets such as wetlands; and
- The existence of large data gaps for rural asset systems, both natural and traditional.
Natural infrastructure is a new challenge for many municipalities. Incorporating it into planning, operations and financing is not a simple task and doing so will require new data collection and analysis as well as building relationships with private landowners and other stakeholders.
Overall, the project demonstrated that municipalities can and should consider the value of natural assets in their everyday decision-making. Parkland County now has a stronger understanding of the value of natural assets to their community, especially in terms of their road and drainage network, and an improved understanding of the financial costs of climate change. For instance, modelling shows that natural assets are feasible tools to use for climate adaptation of road infrastructure.
Council, management and staff are now all better equipped to make decisions regarding natural assets. They are using results and recommendations from this project to better understand the value of natural infrastructure as well as the potential impact of its loss on the community, and to incorporate a consideration of natural assets into the decision-making process. For example, planning and development staff can now make a better case to retain a wetland during land development for its water management potential.
The project has also helped staff estimate the cost of meeting certain water quality and quantity goals through natural asset restoration so that they can prioritize budgets accordingly.
For instance, one goal is to reduce the quantity of total suspended solids (TSS) in waterways. These particles — think sediment, bacteria and algae — float in water without dissolving, and cause increased water temperatures and decreased oxygen, resulting in lower water quality. The municipality has estimated that it will cost $170,303 annually to reduce TSS in waterways by 5 percent (3,000 tonnes) each year through building wetlands and riparian buffers. Their modelling also shows them where to install these natural assets to get the most impact for the lowest cost.
The initiative has had a number of additional benefits, including:
- An increase in useful data about the region’s natural infrastructure, such as the creation of new asset maps showing agricultural land management and land use, and an improved asset management system.
- An increase in momentum to integrate natural asset management across the organization.
- Valuable recommendations to improve the municipality’s drainage issues database and record keeping, so that staff can better manage and improve these assets and find ways in which natural assets can relieve pressure on traditional infrastructure.
- Stronger community partnerships, such as with farmers and ranchers, and improved incentives for these community members to participate in restoring natural assets.
- Improved water and ecosystem health, including increased wildlife and pollinator habitat, better water quality and carbon sequestration.
- Improved understanding of the cost of climate change.
First and foremost, the team concluded that engaging staff at every level was key to the project’s success. For example, staff were able to give input on how their day-to-day realities relate to big-picture thinking on natural infrastructure.
This project also highlighted the importance of partnering with agricultural producers in cases such as this where the natural assets in question are on agricultural land. To this end, they administer the ALUS program whereby farmers and ranchers receive financial support to conserve and restore natural assets on their land. The results of this project are now being used to prioritize funding for ALUS projects as well as to direct communications to areas where asset improvements can have the most impact.
Another important realization was that natural infrastructure analyses are very site specific and local modelling is required.
Parkland County’s intention is to increase the integration of natural asset management and climate change adaptation into existing policies and planning documents. For example, staff are incorporating project results into the new Stormwater Master Plan to prioritize natural infrastructure that has a high impact on drainage.
Staff are also hoping that the project can lead to a more robust and format asset management plan that includes inventoried natural assets with quantifiable financial value to the county. This will help with the transition to natural assets being recorded on municipal balance sheets.
In addition, project partners intend to expand their assessment to a watershed level. This will mean sharing their approach with neighbouring municipalities through regional watershed planning alliances.
Since the project was completed, Parkland County has completed and embarked on a number of related initiatives:
- They are including policy in their Municipal Development Plan update to require land developers to identify and mitigate negative impacts to natural assets during the land development process.
- They have applied for funding to complete a natural asset inventory for the entire county as well as to update their Engineering Design Standards to include natural infrastructure options or requirements along with grey infrastructure in stormwater management and landscaping.
- They have implemented a four-hectare wetland construction project and a shoreline bioengineering project, both of which have been connected to the road and drainage system to mitigate erosion and flooding issues.
“In Parkland County our goal is not just to integrate sustainability considerations into the asset management process, but to embed the asset management process into our environmental and sustainability programs.”
– Krista Quesnel, Manager, Community Sustainability
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