To move a wetland: The pitfalls and opportunities of swampy offsets

As developers promise to create new ponds to replace those they destroy, wetland offsets face some of the same hazards of carbon offsets.

By Tyler Olsen | April 12, 2022 |5:00 am

To get permission to destroy one wetland, an Abbotsford developer has promised to create two newer, better ones.

Welcome to the world of wetland offsets—an arrangement that has drawn little scrutiny in British Columbia in recent years, but generated significant debate in places like Ontario. In that province, some have warned that offsets can create a slippery slope to allow the destruction of increasingly rare wetland habitats, while others say the arrangement can create long-term benefits that exceed any damage done.

Wetland out; wetland in

On Monday, Abbotsford council gave a tentative thumbs up to the second stage of a plan to build a massive industrial park on its western edge near the HighStreet Shopping Centre.

The full proposal would create more than 1.2 million square feet of warehouse and manufacturing space, along with eight hectares of industrial yard space. Its largest buildings would be huge—up to 17 metres tall—with the project aiming to fill a general shortage of industrial land in the region.

But by filling in parts of one of Abbotsford’s prized vacant property blocks, the second phase of the Xchange Business Park project would destroy about 6,000 square metres of wetland (a little more than the size of a Canadian football field) and another 15,000 square metres of riparian habitat. The consultant hired by the developer wrote that although the waterways don’t have fish, their destruction would result in “a loss in the quantity or quality of food and nutrients to downstream fish habitat due to infilling activities.”

Which is where the very 21st Century idea of wetland “offsetting” comes in.

The carbon offset’s swampier cousin

A wetland offset is a lot like its more famous cousin, the carbon offset. Both concepts aim to balance environmentally damaging activities with improvements of a similar nature.

Carbon offsets are not universally beloved: there are questions about how they are applied and whether they allow people to buy their way to environmental accountability. And wetland offsets face similar criticisms.

In November, a Hamilton, Ont.-area proposal to create an offsetting policy was shelved after fierce opposition from residents and local environmental groups.

The Hamilton Conservation Authority’s public consultation on the potential policy drew an overwhelmingly negative response, according to the Hamilton Spectator. The executive director of one local environmental organization said the idea risked “opening a bit of a Pandora’s box.” Another warned that there was risk in trying to move wetlands to a place where one didn’t naturally exist before.

But other nature groups in Ontario have endorsed the idea. Anne Bell, Ontario Nature’s director of conservation and education, wrote a report in 2017 that found wetland offsetting offered a middle-ground between the unrealistic prospect of banning all development on wetlands and allowing them to proceed without compensation. But she warned that they had to be done the right way, for the right reasons.

“Policy-makers must find ways to address the well-founded skepticism and widespread concern that loose application of offsetting will open the door to increased destruction of wetlands,” she warned. “The trade-offs inherent in offsetting will be acceptable to the public only if wetlands, and the communities that benefit from them, are better off in the end.”

SFU professor Alex Boston told The Current that environmental offsets need to be rigorously scrutinized and regulated to ensure they actually have the intended consequences.

He pointed to the Pacific Carbon Trust, BC’s carbon offsetting Crown corporation that was shut down amid scrutiny of its dealings and the effectiveness of the offsets it peddled. Boston noted that offsets need to be closely watched to ensure the benefits last as long as the often-permanent consequences of development.

“Are these environmental benefits actually permanent, and what guarantee is behind them in the event that they are lost?” Offsetting can work, he said. And some projects can be very effective. But Boston added that it should be one of many tools used to facilitate necessary developments; he specifically pointed to a need to focus on building denser and taller industrial projects that require less land.

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In BC, no policies, just “guidance”

In the Lower Mainland, land is a precious resource. And land to accommodate the industrial uses that employ huge numbers of residents is especially hard to find.

So municipalities like Abbotsford have sought places to expand their industrial land bases (and tax streams). And in Abbotsford, the most obvious areas for industrial development are protected by the Agricultural Land Reserve, and are frequently home to ditches and streams. Twice since 2000, the city has embarked on major projects to persuade the Agricultural Land Commission that large blocks of farmland needed to be converted for industrial purposes. Part of that involved demonstrating how the negative impacts on agriculture (and the environment) could be mitigated or overcome. (The lands currently included in the Xchange Business Park proposal were removed from the ALR as part of Abbotsford 2005 application.)

The use of offsets, then, aren’t new to Abbotsford. Indeed, the first phase of the Xchange development also proposed an offsetting arrangement to compensate for the elimination of wetland and riparian areas.

(Tree offsets also exist: when residential developers cut down trees to make way for new homes, they must promise to replace those trees on site, or make a payment to allow for other trees to be planted elsewhere.)

But wetland offsets have generated little public discussion, maybe in part because they remain largely unconstrained by a provincewide policy.

The province is currently updating its guidelines. and a spokesperson wrote that it is “updating the policy procedures to clarify the types of actions that can support habitat offsets.” Right now there is no rule requiring offsets for wetland infringements or destruction. Instead, the promise of wetlands is something developers often offer to try to obtain the consent of the plethora of officials who hold a veto over projects that would infringe on a stream. The municipality is only the first hurdle; a tangle of provincial and federal environment laws protect BC’s wetlands and officials with those governments get the final say.

When complete and if approved, the Xchange Business Park would have more than one million square metres of industrial space. 📷 City of Abbotsford

The Xchange exchange

In the case of Abbotsford’s Xchange project, the developer has promised to try to both enhance on-site wetlands, where possible, and turn two congested waterways to the south into more viable wetland habitats.

See city staff’s report, along with those of the developer’s environmental consultant here. (Document will take a minute to load.)

One of those streams runs through a property located on 0 Avenue, just north of the US/Canada border. That property was previously bought by the city for “flood mitigation purposes,” and the developer would pay the city about $138,600 to use 1.5 hectares of the property. Photos currently show a choked ditch-like stream running through the site. The other wetland would be enhanced along a stream on privately-owned land several blocks south of Fraser Highway intersection, at 2565 and 2651 Mt. Lehman Road.

Creating the new wetlands is expected to cost the developer about $1.3 million. The work would include removing invasive species and suitable plants, monitoring the site, and maintaining the vegetation and wildlife for at least five years. It would also include “amphibian and fish salvage”—essentially trapping non-endangered reptiles and amphibians that could be harmed by development and either relocating them to more suitable locations, or holding them until development is complete.

Offsetting work will look to enhance the wetland habitats on this city-owned property on 0 Avenue. 📷 City of Abbotsford
Offsetting work will look to enhance the wetland habitats on this city-owned property on 0 Avenue. 📷 City of Abbotsford

Protecting land at risk of development is seen as more valuable than creating offsets in areas that won’t be developed. And some of the enhancements will occur on the industrial property itself (the off-site areas are already protected by the ALR and are not at risk of imminent development). The development site has been configured to allow about 8,500 square metres of aquatic habitat and 67,000 square metres of riparian habitat to remain. The land isn’t untouched wetland, and improving the waterways that will remain will likely be viewed favourably by the provincial and federal officials who must still approve the plan.

Although Abbotsford’s Official Community Plan says offsets should be used when habitat loss is “unavoidable,” staff admitted in their report that the Mt. Lehman industrial development could still have proceeded without eliminating the wetland. However, they wrote that if the wetland had remained, “the size and arrangement of large industrial buildings and associated parking and loading areas would have been significantly reduced or altered.”

But the offsets and improvements have been enough to persuade staff that the arrangement will “result in an overall improved fish and wildlife habitat” in the municipality. Council gave their approval Monday. But the wetland trade isn’t a fait accompli quite yet. Two different provincial bodies, along with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, must sign off on the plans to alter the wetland, and none of those officials have given their blessings yet.

If those officials don’t like how the project looks, it could be back to the drawing board.

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Tyler Olsen

Managing Editor at Fraser Valley Current

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