Sandhill Fen and Watershed

CLIENT: Syncrude Canada Ltd.

LOCATION: Ft. McMurray, Alberta, Canada

There is little precedence anywhere in the world for creation of a fen wetland, much less at a large scale as part of oil sands mine reclamation. A fen is a wetland that accumulates peat. It has a water table about 20 cm below ground most of the year and supports a wide range of plants and animals. As such, it is an integral part of the boreal forest and a desired type of ecosystem common in the oil sands region. Syncrude Canada Ltd. wanted to create a fen wetland at its oil sands mine in northern Alberta as part of ongoing mine reclamation activities.

As the lead designer for the project, BGC worked with Syncrude and a team of two dozen researchers to select a target site (a recently sand capped soft tailings deposit at the Mildred Lake Operation), design and construct a 50 hectare watershed that included a 15 hectare fen and two additional perched fens. All aspects of the watershed were designed to support these fens.

The watershed and the fen were completed on schedule and are now the site of a world-class instrumented watershed for reclamation research. Initial results are encouraging, with the uplands feeding groundwater and surface water to the wetlands. Researchers are testing various reclamation strategies and conducting water and carbon balances. The site both demonstrates Syncrude’s ability to reclaim these kinds of wetlands, but also provides an outdoor laboratory for learning for the industry and elsewhere how to create watersheds and wetlands. Learnings to date were central to the success of the CEMA Guidelines for Wetlands Establishment on Reclaimed Oil Sands Leases (Third Edition, 2014) which BGC played a key role in writing. The jury is out on whether anyone can create a true fen, but so far the results are encouraging and are focused on providing answers.