Wetlands can be Infrastructure, too

In 2021, the Canadian Institute for Climate Choices in collaboration with the Smart Property Institute released a case study exploring the value of wetlands as one type of urban natural infrastructure in Calgary, Alberta. They use the major flooding event in Southern Alberta in 2013 that caused significant damage to the City of Calgary as a case example of how wetland strategies were implemented in response to flood management. The case study provides a clear definition of wetlands before outlining their multitude of benefits such as water filtration, flood mitigation, recreation, and tourism. Next, the monetary value of the services wetlands provide are explored and compared against traditional hard infrastructure. This comparison shows similar costs between the two options with additional benefits associated coming from the implementation of natural infrastructure (such as carbon sequestration and habitat provision). The authors then consider flood mitigation strategies in the City of Calgary following the costly flooding in June of 2013. The Province of Alberta and the City of Calgary are shown to have taken several steps to strengthen the protection and restoration of wetlands through wetland specific policy as well as more general development and resilience strategies which recognize the importance of this natural infrastructure. The authors conclude by highlighting a number of barriers and potential solutions to considering wetlands as infrastructure and the benefits from the services they provide. Main themes of both the barriers and solutions considered relate to an institutional unfamiliarity with natural infrastructure as well as appropriate funding to promote the conservation and restoration of wetlands.

Understanding and Assessing Impacts

This document was produced as part of a collection of natural infrastructure case studies in Canada to explore opportunities and barriers in accelerating the implementation of natural infrastructure as an adaptation measure and resilience strategy. Calgary’s major flooding event in 2013 is the main inciting event that highlighted the need for a suite of flood reduction strategies in the region. The flood event displaced thousands of families, disrupted and destroyed businesses, damaged public and private property, and claimed four lives. Flood damages were more than $5 billion across Alberta and an estimated $400 million to the City of Calgary’s infrastructure. Informed by the fifth generation Canadian Regional Climate Model, the article notes that climate change is increasing the likelihood of rainfall in the region and adding to flood risks. At the same time, wetland loss has been a persistent issue in the Bow River Basin. According to the provincial government, in Alberta’s populated areas 64 percent of wetlands have already been lost and the region continues to lose wetlands at a rate of 0.3-0.5 percent per year. In the City of Calgary specifically, losses are in the range of 90 percent. The loss of 133,000ha of wetlands in Alberta over the past 40-60 years has resulted in approximately 379,000,000 m3 of lost water storage capacity. By reducing the ability of the landscape to store water, the loss of wetlands results in increased flow and volumes downstream following rainfall events, exacerbating flood risk.

Identifying Actions

Following the 2013 flood, the City of Calgary established the River Flood Mitigation Program to investigate flood mitigation issues and required responses. As part of the mitigation program, it also formed an independent Expert Management Panel to make recommendations for a more resilient and better prepared Calgary. While most of the 27 recommendations by the Panel focused on engineered infrastructure options to mitigate floods, the Panel did highlight the role of managing the Bow River Watershed in buffering small floods. Additional reports following the flood from Alberta’s Watershed Resiliency and Restoration Program and Ducks Unlimited Canada highlighted the correlation between wetland health and flood mitigation. The former is working to mitigate these hazards through the creation and/ or enhancement of natural systems such as wetlands and riparian areas (adjacent to rivers and streams) to improve watershed functioning. The argument for improvement and restoration of wetlands as a flood mitigation strategy is strengthened by examining the multitude of additional benefits it provides as well as the cost-effectiveness of the strategy. A sample of benefits include water filtration, carbon sequestration, as well as recreation and tourism opportunities. Additionally, at a per unit storage cost of $3.5- $6.7 per m3 a restored wetland can store water at a cost comparable to a dry dam (estimated to cost $1.4 – $7 per m3) while also providing the aforementioned additional benefits.


Since 2013, the City of Calgary and the province of Alberta have built upon existing policy to increase protection of wetlands. Firstly, the new Alberta Wetland Policy was released in 2013 and came into effect in developed areas of the Province in 2015. The goal of the Alberta Wetland Policy is to maintain wetland areas in Alberta such that the ecological, social, and economic benefits that wetlands provide are maintained. The four core tenets of the policy are:

  • Value, wetlands of highest value are determined and protected first
  • Benefits, wetlands are conserved and restored
  • Mitigation, loss or degradation of wetlands is avoided. Damage is minimized or addressed through replacement where avoidance is impossible
  • Regional Management, wetland management considers regional context

The new policy seeks to protect wetlands of the highest value using a wetland rapid evaluation tool. Valuation of wetlands is aided by the Alberta Wetland Evaluation Tool which considers five characteristics related to abundance, human value, water quality improvement, biodiversity, and flood reduction. The policy has since faced challenges related to monitoring and uptake which will be explored further in the section titled Outcomes and Monitoring Progress.

Additionally, in Calgary, 2021 updates to their Municipal Development Plan takes a significant step forward by emphasizing the role of natural infrastructure in building a resilient city. Natural infrastructure and nature-based solutions are also central to Calgary’s Climate Resilience Strategy.

Outcomes and Monitoring Progress

After the Alberta Wetland Policy came into effect in 2015, a number of barriers to the success of the policy were subsequently identified. For instance, the policy’s goal of mitigation which looks to avoid, minimize, or rectify damage to wetlands, is not accompanied with a framework to document and quantify these efforts. Additionally, for developers, it has often been simpler and more cost effective to pay compensation to remove wetlands rather than to conserve them. In 2018, the policy was updated with a provision for grants to finance private wetland restoration with the hope of providing flexibility and access to wetland restoration funds for farmers and other landowners who face cost barriers. The policy was further adjusted in 2020, to include a wetlands restoration Code of Practice with the intention of streamlining Wetland Policy requirements to address some of the above challenges.

The case study also highlights a number of general barriers to considering wetlands as infrastructure. Firstly, natural infrastructure solutions are less common and so not as well understood as traditional grey infrastructure. This unfamiliarity necessitates the involvement of more government departments and experts to successfully implement natural solutions, which is more time consuming and costly. As well, a wetland’s ecological quality, attributes, and co-benefits must be clearly communicated to a variety of stakeholders and partners from engineers to accountants. Doing so requires a considerable number of resources and data collection using a variety of tools and data sources. This task is further complicated by the inherent need for location-specific data. Further, there is lack of institutional capacity in Canada to conceive, plan, and monitor natural infrastructure in municipal settings thus requiring cross-departmental cooperation, new skill acquisition, and more. Finally, the majority of funding for such projects comes from federal infrastructure programs with often difficult to achieve funding requirements (such as those related to size).

Next Steps

As with the barriers identified above, the authors identified several high-level recommendations governments can consider in order to protect and restore wetlands. These recommendations relate to increased financing, both for the projects themselves, as well as to institutional capacity to successfully implement natural infrastructure. Aside from funding needs, several of the options presented call for a change in how wetlands are considered as well as highlighting a framework by which to do so. For instance, explicit acknowledgement of the co-benefits of wetlands in decision-making can raise the profile of nature-based solutions when compared to traditional grey infrastructure or engineered adaptation strategies. Another such suggestion is to alter current federal funding requirements by adjusting their requirements. Currently, the Climate Lens, a framework created by Infrastructure Canada and applied to projects seeking funding under a number of federal programs assesses the sensitivity of assets to climate change rather than the effect of the asset on a community’s sensitivity to the phenomena. Bringing more attention to the benefits of natural infrastructure could help raise the profile of these projects. The full list of suggestions can be found below:

  • Prioritize protection of existing wetlands
  • Increase natural infrastructure financing
  • Provide financial support for capacity-building and interdepartmental cooperation
  • Explicitly acknowledge co-benefits
  • Incentivize action on private lands
  • Raise profile of natural infrastructure in the Climate Lens (Infrastructure Canada assessment framework)

Additionally, as of 2021, the City of Calgary was undertaking natural asset valuation, which will aid in identifying and informing relevant actions throughout municipal plans as well as within climate focused plans.