A Syncrude news and community update
The science of recreating a fen wetland
Forest floor material on top of the hummocks contain the seeds that will propagate shrub species like blueberry, barberry and cranberry.
The northwest corner of Syncrude’s former East Mine may look like dirt and sand with wood strewn about, but it’s actually the first stages of reclamation.
Take a walk through the 50-hectare Sandhill Fen Watershed project with Lynne Barlow and you soon learn a little about the science involved in creating a wetland that will blend naturally into the surrounding area.
“The purpose of this research project is to create an environment that will promote establishment of a fen in Syncrude’s original East Mine,” says Lynne, who is the project leader.
Fens are wetlands consisting of peat (mosses), sedges and grasses in which the water table fluctuates within 20 centimetres of the surface. Fens are often referred to as muskeg in Canada’s boreal region or bogland in Atlantic Canada. The difference between a fen and a bog is primarily in the water chemistry. “Fens are fed by surface water and groundwater and the water is either neutral or alkaline,” explains Lynne. “Bogs have slightly acidic water that is primarily fed by rainwater.”
Although the water table is high, fens are not open water ponds. Once vegetation is established, open water is rarely visible.
When construction of the Sandhill Fen Watershed is complete in 2012, the 50-hectare northwest corner of the former mine will consist of hummocks, fens, a water storage pond and islands of peat and clay, all sculpted atop a base of sand-capped soft tailings. Scientists will then begin a 10-year study as part of an instrumented watershed and research pilot project.
Because recreating a fen of this size and magnitude has never been attempted before, a team of more than 15 researchers – both Syncrude and external scientists – came together to brainstorm a conceptual design. Carla Wytrykush is a key member of this team. “Our goal is to construct the initial conditions necessary to develop a self-sustaining fen wetland and its watershed,” says the environmental scientist. “Hummocks are crucial in managing water tables in reclaimed landforms.”
“The hummocks are designed to allow precipitation and snow melt to flow down into the wetland area, creating ground water, and to provide some surface runoff into the fen,” adds Lynne.
Part of the fen construction required transferring live peat vegetation from future mine sites to the watershed. Studies were done on 20 test plots of varying depths of peat and water salinity. This helped determine the best time of year to transplant the vegetation and identify the need for non-saline groundwater to keep it flourishing.
Another purpose of this project is to develop operational methods to reclaim soft tailings deposits. “The information we gain from this large-scale project will answer a variety of research questions to guide our future wetland reclamation efforts,” says Carla. “We want to address a variety of components of landform performance, including hydrology, hydrogeology, salt, water and carbon balance, revegetation techniques and vegetation establishment. We also want to better understand how to propagate and plant a variety of shrub species, including blueberry, bearberry and cranberry, in the uplands.”
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