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What is a Wetland?
Wetlands are low-lying areas of land covered by water long enough to support aquatic plants and wildlife for part of their life cycle. Wetlands are highly diverse, productive ecosystems that provide a host of ecological services and form an integral component of Alberta’s diverse landscapes.
They play an important role in sustaining healthy watersheds by protecting water quality, providing water storage and infiltration, providing habitat for wildlife, fish and plants, and sustaining biodiversity. Wetlands in Alberta are estimated to host some 400 species of plants, some of which are listed as rare, threatened or endangered in the province.
Approximately 20% of Alberta’s surface area is covered by wetlands with more than 90% of these classified as peatlands. These are wetlands that accumulate peat (partially decomposed organic vegetation) versus non-peatlands that do not accumulate peat. Within those broad classifications, five wetland classes are identified:
Bogs – peat-covered wetlands where due to poor drainage and the decay of plant material, the surface water is strongly acidic and low in nutrients. Although they are dominated by sphagnum mosses and shrubs, bogs may support trees.
Fens – also peat-covered wetlands, but influenced by a flow of ground-water. They tend to be basic as opposed to acidic and are more productive than a bog. Although fens are dominated by sedges they may also contain shrubs and trees.
Swamps – dominated by shrubs or trees and can be flooded seasonally or for long periods of time. Swamps are both nutrient rich and productive. Swamps can be peatlands or non-peatlands.
Shallow Open Water Ponds – These wetlands include potholes and ponds, as well as water along rivers and lakeshore areas. They are usually relatively small bodies of standing or flowing water commonly representing the stage between lakes and marshes.
Marshes – are periodically or permanently covered by standing or slowly moving water. Marshes are rich in nutrients and have emergent reeds, rushes, cattails and sedges. Water remains within the root zone of these plants for most of the growing season.
On the prairies, wetlands are predominantly non-peatland. In the northern regions of Alberta peatlands dominate.