Olds College opens research into urban wetlands

A $3.2-million wetland research project that could change the way decorative lakes and retention ponds are built in urban centres was given a big welcome at Olds College on Thursday.

A worker sets up a tent for the groundbreaking ceremony for Olds College’s new Botanic Garden and Treatment Wetlands Thursday. Heritage Barn in background will serve as the project’s interpretive centre.

OLDS — A $3.2-million wetland research project that could change the way decorative lakes and retention ponds are built in urban centres was given a big welcome at Olds College on Thursday.

As part of a ceremony that attracted several government ministers, a $490,700 cheque was presented by a Calgary developer. The money, which nearly completes the funding needed for a wetland and botanical research site to be created on college land, was obtained though an innovative pilot project.

Ken Risi, Olds College’s director of development, said instead of WestCreek Developments paying $490,700 in “mitigation funding” to an organization such as Ducks Unlimited for displacing a natural wetland in the course of construction, the money went towards the college’s research project.

Risi praised this creative dispersal of funds. “It’s a way of thinking outside the box,” he said, which will lead to new knowledge about how artificial wetlands can be better constructed.

While wetlands in southern climes have been studied for their ability to cleanse impurities out of waste water, little research has been done on water plants in northern climates.

This will be the goal of Olds College students and instructors once the six-acre wetland is built next March. (The surrounding park-like botanical gardens, to be planted on 12-acres, will be open to the public and allow students to experiment with various perennial plants and trees).

Risi said college researchers will put trays of different plant life into the wetland so they can see how effectively they cleanse various “grey waters.”

He anticipates this information will be very useful for urban developers. Not only can neighbourhood water features be decorative, they can also be made productive, through the introduction of various water plants.

Risi also hopes this same data can be applied to the handling of oilfield and industrial waste water, runoff from livestock feedlots, or even de-icing fluid from airports.

Eventually, he hopes artificial wetlands can be as effective at ridding storm water of toxins and impurities as natural wetlands. “We will certainly learn to make them better than if we didn’t do anything.”

As part of the innovative project, Olds College students will also gain access to a 55-acre wetland to be built on donated land in the Town of Strathmore. Risi said this will help them test information gleaned from the six-acre wetland on a much larger scale.

Alberta Environment Minister Rob Renner praised the research project, calling it “the first of its kind in Alberta . . . (it will be) providing us with solid information to help improve our management of Alberta’s wetlands.”

Alberta Agriculture Minister George Groeneveld, Sustainable Resource Development Minister Ted Morton and area MLA Richard Mars were also expected to attend Thursday’s ceremony at the Olds College.

Jordan Cleland, vice-president of advancement for the college, said “It’s a tremendous day for Olds College, and a celebration of what we are capable of with the support of industry and government.” Cleland added the project “marks a new chapter in the province’s Water for Life Strategy.”

Other funds for the wetland and botanical gardens were obtained through private and industry sources, from environmental organizations, and provincial and municipal governments.

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com

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