The Modeste Natural Infrastructure Project

Initiated in 2018, the Modeste Natural Infrastructure Project (MNIP) evaluates the environmental and economic benefits of improving natural infrastructure on agricultural lands in Alberta’s Modeste watershed.

The Modeste watershed is close to 4,800 km2 and drains into the larger North Saskatchewan River basin. It is located upstream of Edmonton and Alberta’s capital region and influences the drinking water supply of over 1.6 million people. The Government of Alberta has identified the Modeste as a priority for flood and drought mitigation and a crucial area affecting water quality.

The Modeste natural infrastructure project was designed by ALUS Canada, the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance, and municipalities in the Modeste watershed. ALUS is a charitable organization leading an innovative community-developed and farmer-delivered program that produces, enhances, and maintains ecosystem services on agricultural lands. The North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance (NSWA) is a multi-sector, not-for-profit organization that works to improve water quality, water quantity, and watersheds’ health by developing and sharing knowledge, facilitating partnerships and collaborative planning processes.

The primary funder of the project’s first phase was Alberta Environment and Parks’ Watershed Resiliency and Restoration Program (WRRP) which granted $720,000 to the project. With this funding, ALUS established new natural infrastructure projects on agricultural land to mitigate flooding, increase drought resilience and improve water quality. The grant also supported watershed level modelling led by Dr. Wanhong Yang of the University of Guelph to identify high priority areas, evaluate water-related outcomes, and provide cost-benefit analyses. Additional funding was supplied by the City of Edmonton, EPCOR and the McConnell Foundation. An additional grant was made by NRCan’s climate adaptation fund to support an economic analysis, designed and overseen by Dr. Marian Weber of Innotech Alberta.


Identifying Actions

The Modeste Natural Infrastructure Project (MNIP) brought together organizations involved with different aspects of environmental management to begin collaboration on natural infrastructure management at the watershed scale. Compared to other studies in Canada that evaluate natural infrastructure projects for a single purpose, the MNIP project is large-scale (approximately 4,800 km2.). MNIP encompasses several communities and considers a wide variety of landscape management practices by hundreds of landowners. Rather than a single beneficiary, this project evaluates general water quality and quantity impacts, which benefit many communities.
The partner organizations bring expertise in natural infrastructure data management and modelling, economic cost/benefit analysis, on-ground project implementation and stakeholder engagement. For example, the North Saskatchewan Watershed Alliance (NSWA) facilitates multi-stakeholder collaboration to evaluate watershed health and develop management plans. Municipalities, such as Parkland County, play an essential role because of their ability to advance environmental regulation through statutory planning. ALUS Canada, and its community-delivery partners deliver natural infrastructure projects by incentivizing farmers and ranchers to conserve and restore natural assets on their properties. Finally, the University of Guelph plays a crucial role in their ability to model and research priority locations for projects to maximize benefits and minimize costs of implementation.
ALUS and NSWA identified the Modeste as an ideal location for the pilot project for the following reasons:
  • The Modeste sub-watershed had been identified by the Government of Alberta as a high-priority area for flood and drought mitigation.
  • The NSWA’s inter-municipal committee, the Headwaters Alliance, was able to offer advisory services.
  • Data and knowledge was available from NSWA’s riparian studies.
  • Each of the five counties participating on the Headwaters’ committee had demonstrated capacity to engage farmers and ranchers in enhancing and protecting natural infrastructure. (Four of the counties (Brazeau, Leduc, Parkland, Wetaskiwan) had started an ALUS program.)
Once the location was chosen, ALUS Canada and NSWA brought on project partners Parkland County, University of Guelph, Innotech Alberta, and ALUS community programs in the four counties.
The project partners coalesced around a set of objectives including: establishing natural infrastructure projects on agricultural lands; using the IMWEBs model to better understand the impacts of projects; and to compare the costs and benefits of different natural infrastructure projects.

Implementation

By 2021, on-the-ground ALUS projects were completed, project impacts were modelled, and results were shared with producer participants, project partners and local municipalities. A report outlining a framework for municipalities to begin collecting natural infrastructure data was also produced.
The IMWEBs model was used to evaluate different natural infrastructure restoration and enhancement scenarios and quantified the cost-effectiveness of the implemented actions.
An additional analysis was undertaken by Parkland County to evaluate the most cost-effective way to reduce total suspended solids (TSS) to improve water quality. TSS are particles that do not dissolve in water; they degrade water quality for human and aquatic life by increasing water temperature and decreasing dissolved oxygen.  Using IMWEBs Parkland County set a goal to reduce their TSS loading by 5% (3,000 tons) each year. IMWEBs companion tool, the Ecosystem Services Assessment Tool” (ESAT) provided “intelligent recommendations” about where to put natural infrastructure in Parkland County to get the most TSS reduction for the lowest cost, on the least amount of land. The three scenarios were:
  1. Livestock Fencing BMP: This scenario identified 1,287 ha of livestock fencing at a cost of $687,460 per year.  This reduced TSS by 1,467 tons for an average $466 per ton reduction. This was the least cost-effective option and did not meet the desired objective.
  2. Riparian Buffer BMP: This scenario identified 3,341 hectares of riparian buffers at a cost of $843,950 per year.  This reduced TSS by 3,775 tons for an average $224 per ton reduction. This was a reasonably cost-effective option but involved considerably more acreage.
  3. Mix of both: This scenario implemented 421 hectares of livestock fencing and 73 hectares of riparian buffers at a cost of $170,303 per year.  This reduced TSS by 3,000 tons for an average cost of $57 per ton. By analysing the most cost-effective parcels for implementing each BMP, the model showed how to best combine BMP strategies and achieve the most cost-effective solution that uses the least amount of land.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

The project’s outcomes include improved water and ecosystem health due to increased flood and drought mitigation, water quality improvement, the creation of wildlife habitat, and carbon sequestration.  A total of 1,116 hectares of agricultural land was restored and/or enhanced. The project also strengthened community partnerships across the watershed. Importantly the project revealed a range of barriers to natural infrastructure creation and management that must be addressed. Some of these include:
  • Natural infrastructure is rightly perceived as a challenging issue within many municipal governments. Incorporating natural infrastructure into infrastructure planning, operations, and financing is complex and will require new data collection and analysis and building relationships with private landowners and other stakeholders.
  • Participants noted the lack of standard approaches for natural asset management and most sub-components, including developing inventories, valuation, and financial reporting.
  • It was noted that many smaller Alberta local governments lack staff capacity and resources for natural infrastructure management actions.
  • Conflicting policies and regulations that may indirectly encourage the elimination of natural infrastructure such as wetlands.

Next Steps

MNIP has set a foundation for understanding the costs and benefits of natural infrastructure at the watershed scale. Participating communities will be able to use IMWEBs to ask questions such as: “How much natural infrastructure, and of what kind, will it take to improve water quality by 5%?” as demonstrated by Parkland County.

The MNIP team is committed to working together to expand the capacity of municipalities in the Modeste watershed to utilize the IMWEBs model to improve municipal planning and management of natural infrastructure. Future work will involve training staff from relevant municipal departments to use IMWEBs. Ultimately, we aim to ensure that the restoration of natural infrastructure will be factored into municipal financing, planning and operations, saving tax dollars and providing a wide range of environmental benefits for local and downstream residents.

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