Oil Sands Wetland Ecosystem Monitoring Program Indicators in Alberta, Canada: Transitioning from Pilot to Long-Term Monitoring
1.1. OSM Wetlands Program History
- Identify high-level pathway–state relationships from oil sands development pressures;
- Present pilot program monitoring data and preliminary high-level wetland indicator observations;
- Assess wetland indicator abilities to measure changes in the ecosystem “state”, relating select indicator data to oil sands development pressures where appropriate;
- Discuss the limitations of the pilot study, proposed improvements, and recommendations for long-term monitoring efforts.
2. Materials and Methods
2.1. Study Site
2.2. Wetland Conceptual Model and Indicators
2.3. Data Analysis
2.3.1. Hydrometeorological Data
2.3.2. Water Quality
2.3.3. Benthic Invertebrates
3.1. Wetland Conceptual Model and Indicators
3.2. Hydrometeorological Data
3.3. Water Quality
3.4. Benthic Invertebrates
4.1. Addressing OSM Program Objectives
4.2. Wetland Indicators: Implications and Long-Term Monitoring Potential
4.2.1. Hydrometeorological Data
4.2.2. Water Quality
4.2.3. Benthic Invertebrates
4.3. Defining Baseline Conditions and Assessing Variability
4.4. Scaling up Monitoring Data—Remote Sensing Strategy
5. Conclusions and Recommendations
Data Availability Statement
Conflicts of Interest
|469||Black spruce-dominant with bog rosemary and cottongrass understory. Adjacent to train tracks in recently burned forest.|
|326||Bog birch-dominant with sedge understory. Adjacent to road and pipeline corridor.|
|215||Dwarf birch-dominant with sedge understory and scattered larch. Adjacent to winter road that transects perpendicular to flow direction.|
|212||Sedge and rush-dominant with common cattail and yellow pond lily near shoreline. Black spruce and poplar in adjacent upland. Adjacent to recent cut block (2019), within the flood plain of the Athabasca River.|
|305||Black spruce-dominant with willow and graminoid understory. Nutrient-rich wetland complex located adjacent to cut block. Complex transitions from bog to swamp.|
|305||Willow-dominant with sedge and common cattail understory. Located on reclaimed exploration area/borrow.|
|421||Willow-dominant with sedge and graminoid understory. Common cattail and rush at shoreline. Disturbed wetland/borrow pit immediately adjacent to Highway 63.|
|597||Black spruce- and larch-dominant with willow and sedge understory. Floating fen located on in situ oil sands lease, adjacent to Highway 63.|
|286||Dwarf birch-dominant with sedge understory. Scattered willow, larch, and black spruce. Wetland complex within oil sands exploration area. Road intersects connected swamp upstream.|
|542||Black spruce-dominant with bog birch, Labrador tea, and other graminoid. Within forest adjacent to pipeline corridor and Highway 63.|
|265||Black spruce-dominant with bog birch, cottongrass, and Labrador tea understory. Pristine bog, located near low-impact exploration.|
|265||Sedge- and pitcher plant-dominant in “flarks” with larch, black spruce, and bog birch in adjacent “strings”. Patterned fen, located near low-impact exploration. Patterned fen is made up of strings and flarks; strings are elevated mounds, and flarks are low-lying areas between strings.|
|264||Black spruce- and willow-dominant with mixed sedge and forb understory. Low-impact SOW complex transitioning to treed swamp and shrubby/graminoid fen.|
|209||Willow, birch, sedge, and other graminoid-dominant with common cattail and horsetail near shoreline. High-impact SOW intersected by Highway 63 and pipeline corridor. Adjacent to industrial yard.|
|311||Black spruce-dominant with cottongrass, bog birch, and Labrador tea understory. Located within sandy substrate. Adjacent to active exploration and access road.|
|695||Sedge-dominant with scattered dwarf birch. Low-impact graminoid fen hydrologically connected to lake. Large open water area at central zone.|
|272||Black spruce-dominant with bog birch, Labrador tea, and bog rosemary understory. Adjacent to Canadian Natural Resources (CNRL) Horizon Highway and exploration access trail.|
|361||Black spruce-dominant with bog birch, Labrador tea, bog rosemary, and cranberry understory. Elevated bog from surrounding fen. Surrounded by exploration access trail.|
|269||Willow-dominant with scattered poplar and Jack pine. Sedge- and yellow pond lily-dominant near riparian and shoreline. Karst sinkhole within sandy upland. Adjacent to access road.|
|715||Bog birch- and sedge-dominant with scattered larch and black spruce. Located in local valley. Exhibits deep peat deposits. Intersecting road induces water pooling at northern part of fen.|
|294||Larch- and black spruce-dominant with willow, bog birch, and sedge understory. Rich treed fen, adjacent to recent fire, access road, and low-impact seismic.|
|372||Saline tolerant grasses-dominant with willow and dwarf birch scattered throughout. Low-impact seismic line at north of fen. Scattered with open water areas.|
|HOBO USB Micro Station Data Logger-H21-USB|
https://www.onsetcomp.com/sites/default/files/resources-documents/20875-E%20H21-USB%20Manual.pdf (accessed on 6 May 2023)
|Processor, power, and data storage assembly unit for connected sensors.|
|HOBO Rain Gauge Data Logger-RG3|
https://www.onsetcomp.com/sites/default/files/resources-documents/10241-M%20MAN-RG3%20and%20RG3-M.pdf (accessed on 6 May 2023)
|Records the amount of precipitation as rainfall.|
|Soil Moisture Smart Sensor-EC5 (S-SMC-M005)|
https://www.onsetcomp.com/sites/default/files/resources-documents/15081-J%20S-SMx%20Manual.pdf (accessed on 6 May 2023)
|Records soil moisture content and temperature.|
|HOBO Temperature/RH Smart Sensor (S-THB-M002)|
https://www.onsetcomp.com/sites/default/files/resources-documents/11427-O%20S-THB%20Manual.pdf (accessed on 6 May 2023)
|Records temperature and relative humidity. Sensor is protected from direct radiation with a solar radiation shield (HOBO RS3).|
|Onset HOBO U20 Water Level Logger|
https://www.onsetcomp.com/sites/default/files/resources-documents/12315-J%20U20%20Manual.pdf (accessed on 6 May 2023)
|Records pressure exerted by vertical water column (when submerged) and water temperature. Depth to water is calculated by calibrating pressure measurements against ambient barometric pressure.|
|Reconyx Hyperfire 2 Outdoor Series Camera|
https://www.reconyx.com/img/file/-HyperFire2UserGuide2018_04_24_v1.pdf (accessed on 6 May 2023)
|Digital camera with a passive infrared motion detector and a nighttime infrared illuminator that work in combination to capture photographs of wildlife.|
|Wildlife Acoustics Song Meter SM4|
https://www.wildlifeacoustics.com/uploads/user-guides/SM4-USER-GUIDE-EN20220923.pdf (accessed on 6 May 2023)
|Programmable audio recorder designed for the periodic, seasonal, and long-term monitoring of wildlife bioacoustics.|
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|Wetland Class||Position in the Landscape||Soil and Vegetation||Water Regime and Chemistry|
|Fen||Flat to gentle slopes. Often part of wetland complexes.||>40 cm depth peat.|
High floristic species diversity.
Wetland forms include wooded, shrubby, graminoid.
|Minerotrophic (water inputs from surface runoff, groundwater, and precipitation). Surface and groundwater flow with near-surface water table.|
Generally freshwater but can be slightly brackish. Ranges from nutrient-poor to extremely rich. Wide range of pH (from neutral to slightly alkaline).
|Bog||Flat elevated terraces.||>40 cm depth peat.|
Low floristic species diversity.
Wetland forms include wooded, shrubby, open.
|Ombrotrophic (water input primarily from precipitation). Low groundwater flow with a stable water table. Acidic pH and low nutrients.|
|SOW||Natural and anthropogenic topographic depressions or lake margins.||Mineral wetlands with <40 cm organic soil. Characterized by floating and aquatic vegetation in <2 m of open water.|
Wetland forms include floating or submersed aquatic, bare.
|Minerotrophic (water inputs from surface runoff, groundwater, and precipitation). Permanent open water bodies in the oil sands region with dynamic seasonal water levels. Nutrient-rich freshwater or saline. Typically, neutral pH.|
|Wetland Indicators||Indicator Rationale||Predicted Responses to Priority Oil Sands Development Pressures|
(Changes in wetland area, fragmentation, loss of connectivity).
|Wetland area status and trends are critical indicators of wetland health and condition .|
Northern Alberta has one of the fastest rates of land disturbance .
Local Indigenous communities are concerned about land use change.
|Land disturbances result in direct wetland loss, increased fragmentation, and decreased connectivity [39,40].|
Changes in the habitat and abundance of traditional plant areas, wetland-reliant species at risk, and biodiversity .
(Precipitation, temperature, relative humidity, and wind speed and direction).
|Contextualize the influence of local climate on wetland hydrological conditions versus anthropogenic development.|
Contextualize wetland hydrological functioning as related to 10–15-year wet–dry climate cycles that characterize the OSR .
|Climate change is predicted to affect the duration of wetland hydrological connectivity in the region .|
(Water table depth, soil moisture levels)
|Wetlands provide hydrological ecosystem services .|
Hydrology is sensitive to local land disturbances and anthropogenic hydrological alterations [43,45].
Water table position and open water area are proxies for assessing change in wetland function .
Local Indigenous communities are concerned about access routes to harvesting and occupancy sites.
|OS water management may result in abnormal water table positions , resulting in terrestrialization and changes to runoff.|
Localized infrastructure development may obstruct wetland natural subsurface flow, changing hydrodynamics [47,48].
|Surface water quality.|
(Full suite of OS SWQ parameters of concern for shallow open water wetlands; reduced suite of parameters in peatlands).
|SWQ parameters provide a measure of aquatic habitat condition relative to the needs of flora and fauna (e.g., habitat, drinking water, etc.) .|
Deposited contaminants can be transported large distances through the hydrological network (e.g., surface water and/or groundwater).
Multiple OS contaminants can modify wetland function [49,50,51].
|Directly deposited or transported contaminants may cause eutrophication/nitrification [49,50].|
Contaminant concentrations may change in relation to established guidelines [30,52,53].
Potential to change specific conductance and pH .
(Shallow open water wetlands only; full suite of OS sediment parameters of concern).
|Sediments are contaminant sinks and a major exposure route for plants, invertebrates, amphibians, and birds.||Contaminant concentrations may change in relation to established guidelines (e.g., CCME PAL Guidelines).|
Shallow lake sediments near the OS mining center are enriched in vanadium and nickel .
(Community composition and structure; culturally important plants; high disturbance indicator species; obligate wetland species).
|Plant communities are sensitive to natural and anthropogenic drivers.|
Culturally important plants are a proxy of wetland health and change .
Local Indigenous communities are concerned about changes in vegetation communities reducing biodiversity [5,41].
|High disturbance indicator species are more common in wetlands nearer to land disturbances .|
Change in vegetation community composition resulting from contaminant deposition.
(Shallow open water wetlands only; community composition).
|Benthic invertebrates are small, aquatic organisms commonly used to assess the environmental condition of freshwaters (rivers, lakes, wetlands) across Canada .||Benthic invertebrate communities are sensitive to the extent of land disturbance in wetland buffers and associated changes in surface water quality.|
(Remote cameras and acoustic recorders).
|Wildlife are sensitive to land disturbances and human activity.|
Local Indigenous communities are concerned that fewer wildlife are using wetlands .
|Potential for negative ecological and socioeconomic impacts on wildlife due to anthropogenic activity .|
Increased human noise and activity has potential to reduce wildlife habitat and presence [59,60].
|Parameter||Potential Oil Sands-Related Source||Importance|
|Total Nitrogen||Industrial emissions (stack, fleet) of NOX; emissions of NH3 from tailings ; microbial fixation .||Eutrophication of low-nutrient habitats (i.e., bogs and poor fens); shift from bryophyte-dominated to vascular-dominated communities . Potential ammonia toxicity to fish and other aquatic life but dependent on pH and temperature .|
|Sulfate||Industrial emissions of SO2 and H2S .||Acidifying deposition ; sulfate toxicity is hardness dependent .|
|Σ Base Cations||Deposition of fugitive dust from surface mining/surficial erosion .||Some evidence of neutralizing acid deposition [64,65]; potential to increase pH in bogs.|
|Total and Methylmercury||Industrial emissions ; global deposition ; in situ fixation .||Bioaccumulation and biomagnification in aquatic food web (Lavoie et al., 2013); human health concerns associated with wild food sources.|
|Σ Alk-PAHs||Raw bitumen, petroleum coke ; wildfire .||Known mutagens and carcinogens; classified as toxic substances in Canada under Schedule 1 of the Canadian Environmental Protection Act .|
|Vanadium||Petrogenic in origin; associated with stack emissions and fugitive dust from raw bitumen.||Mostly used as tracer for oil sands impacts on site; Alberta WQ guidelines only exist for irrigation and livestock water .|
|Nickel||Oil sands and petroleum coke .||Mostly used as tracer for oil sands impacts on site; essential metal but toxic at higher concentrations .|
|Selenium||Associated with the organic (i.e., bitumen) fraction of ores .||Bioaccumulation in aquatic food webs; toxic effects include deformed embryos and reproductive failure in wildlife .|
|Aluminum||Crustal element associated with fugitive dust and mining activities .||Known toxicity to aquatic organisms but dependent on pH, dissolved organic carbon (DOC), and hardness [76,77].|
|Wetland Class||Richness||Diversity||Most Abundant Taxon *|
|MAQ01||Fen||35||2.47||Stylaria lacustris (0.33)|
|JEN01||SOW||36||2.80||Stylaria lacustris (0.16)|
|Site||Class||Remote Cameras||Acoustic Recorder|
|Richness||Species at Risk||Richness||Species at Risk|
|JPH04||8||8||-||WOCA 3||24||CONI 2|
|MCM01||6||-||WOCA 1||-||16||CONI 2|
|SAL01||7||5||STGR 2||-||19||OSFL 4|
|AUR01||8||3||-||-||21||CONI 2, OSFL 4|
|JEN01||10||10||-||-||13||CONI 2, OSFL 4|
|PAT01||11||8||STGR 2||-||21||CONI 2|
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Mahoney, C.; Montgomery, J.; Connor, S.; Cobbaert, D. Oil Sands Wetland Ecosystem Monitoring Program Indicators in Alberta, Canada: Transitioning from Pilot to Long-Term Monitoring. Water 2023, 15, 1914. https://doi.org/10.3390/w15101914
Mahoney C, Montgomery J, Connor S, Cobbaert D. Oil Sands Wetland Ecosystem Monitoring Program Indicators in Alberta, Canada: Transitioning from Pilot to Long-Term Monitoring. Water. 2023; 15(10):1914. https://doi.org/10.3390/w15101914Chicago/Turabian Style
Mahoney, Craig, Joshua Montgomery, Stephanie Connor, and Danielle Cobbaert. 2023. "Oil Sands Wetland Ecosystem Monitoring Program Indicators in Alberta, Canada: Transitioning from Pilot to Long-Term Monitoring" Water 15, no. 10: 1914. https://doi.org/10.3390/w15101914