Thursday, 19 November 2015

The Northeast Swale: Saskatoon's Conservation Opportunity of a Lifetime

Note: This article is based on a November 2015 conversation with Louise Jones and Candace Savage of the Northeast Swale Watchers, an advocacy group whose goal is to protect the biodiversity of the Swale.

The land whispers in your ear as you walk across the Northeast Swale. Its low-lying wetlands and rocky promontories speak of an ancient river channel, carved by the melt waters from a slow-moving glacier. Smooth, shiny areas on lichen-covered rocks tell of buffalo that halted in their journey to relieve an itch by rubbing themselves.

Pause for a moment and feel the life pulsing around you. This important fragment of an ancient prairie landscape is home to more than 100 species of birds and 200 species of plants. Listen carefully and you’ll hear the song of a meadowlark. Part the grasses at your feet and you may spy a rare crowfoot violet. Both mule deer and white-tailed deer have made this land their home. This magical landscape isn’t a remote wilderness area. Instead, it lies on the very edge of Saskatoon, soon to be surrounded by new residential neighbourhoods. The land cries out to us, demanding that we value it and protect it for future inhabitants.

From Challenge to Opportunity
The Meewasin Valley Authority and the City of Saskatoon are to be commended for recognizing the value of this urban nature preserve, but much remains to be done if we are to protect and sustain this area in the face of ongoing development.

The Northeast Swale Watchers keep a close eye on activity in and around the Swale and have a number of concerns.

Gaps in Master Plan
The City of Saskatoon and the Meewasin Valley Authority recently approved the Northeast Swale Master Plan. The plan covers the part of the Swale that is within City limits and is intended to provide comprehensive planning and resource management.

“The problem with the Plan is that it doesn’t follow through on its good intentions, says Candace Savage, a local writer and member of the Northeast Swale Watchers. “The principles are there, the language is great, but many key provisions of the plan are unsatisfactory.”

Lack of Connectivity
A significant problem is that the Master Plan doesn’t protect the ecological connectivity of the Swale. The Swale is an ancient river channel providing a natural connection to the river. Animals looking for water use the Swale to reach the river. Connected wetlands and ground water flow towards the river. Maintaining that connectivity is critical if we are to protect this natural area. Unfortunately, we seem to be breaking it up into tiny pieces.

The Plan provides for the part of the Swale that is within City limits (300 hectares, 5 kilometers long) to be dissected by four roadways, including two major new thoroughfares – the Perimeter Highway and the North Commuter Parkway. In contrast, Fish Creek Provincial Park in southwest Calgary at over 1300 hectares is one of North America’s largest urban parks. It is surrounded by urban neighbourhoods. “And yet, over its 19-kilometer length, Fish Creek Park is bisected by only two roads,” Candace says. “Somehow or other, Calgary is managing to conserve the relative ‘wholeness’ of this much-loved natural area and, at the same time, grow to support a population of 1.2 million residents.”

The Master Plan emphasizes the importance of ecological connectivity, lists the problems caused by situating two major roadways less than a kilometer apart, and yet does nothing to resolve the problem. There are solutions, such as moving the Perimeter Highway further outside of Saskatoon’s expanding city limits and connecting it with the new Warman overpass, but the Provincial Government appears unwilling to revise their outdated plans.

Good Intentions
The City of Saskatoon and the Meewasin Valley Authority have good intentions, but they fail to translate into action. Construction has already started in Aspen Ridge, but municipal officials admit they “fell down” in providing the contractors with the pre-development guidelines, which were specifically designed to protect this ecologically sensitive area.

It appears that lighting for the North Commuter Parkway will be the same as any other major arterial controlled access roadway with no allowance being made for its location in the Swale with lower speeds and a dark area where animals are expected to cross the road.

The Swale Watchers have documented examples of instructions not being passed along to sub-contractors. “It’s not good enough,” says Louise. “The City is always trying to fix things up after the fact.”

“We need to do a much better job of ensuring that what happens on the ground is what the planners envisioned,” Candace says. “It doesn’t matter if you have good intentions. What matters is what happens.”

Who Will Take Responsibility?
The Meewasin Valley Authority is responsible for long-term ecological monitoring. The City of Saskatoon and its contractors have responsibility for monitoring work in progress. The two parties appear to be passing the buck with no one currently ensuring that residential and roadway development is in line with the Northeast Swale Master Plan and guidelines.

In addition, monitoring in and of itself isn’t sufficient. What action will the City take if the work isn’t in compliance? Will they be prepared to stop work?

“Alberta has strict construction guidelines. They’re not unexpected,” Louise says. “Saskatoon shouldn’t be afraid to expect compliance. I’m sure the contractors would prefer clear guidelines from the beginning to ongoing complaints.”

“City councillors have tried to find a balance between competing interests,” Louise says. “They need to forget balance and start agreeing on priorities. Compromise means no one is happy and everything is watered down.”

Competing Priorities
Integrated project management with an overarching authority taking responsibility for ensuring that the Swale is protected would go a long way to addressing the problems which continue to arise.

Unfortunately, if there is an overarching authority, it errs on the side of promoting development. The Land branch is extremely powerful as it actually makes money, rather than simply spending it. It operates at arm’s length from the other municipal departments and has pushed development around the Swale because it owns the land, despite the fact that the local housing market is currently over-saturated.

Saskatoon should look to the City of Edmonton’s Office of Biodiversity, which coordinates biodiversity for the city, working with other departments to ensure that natural areas are protected.

What Can I Do?
As individuals, we often feel powerless. But that isn’t the case. Stewards and activists both play a vital role in protecting our natural areas.

Stewards of the Land
The Rosewood Community Association takes pride in its numerous green corridors and parks, including the Hyde Park Naturalized Area. Local residents hold regular park clean-ups and some residents, who are fortunate enough to back onto the naturalized park, are changing the plantings in their own yards so as not to introduce foreign plants into the park.

Evergreen residents, with the support of members of their community association board, have just begun setting up a Northeast Swale stewardship group. There is so much that a neighbourhood stewardship group can do to both protect and enjoy the wild area that is right on their doorstep. It could be as simple as recording the number of deer you see as you look out your window. School groups are already helping to monitor water quality, and the Meewasin Valley Authority would welcome assistance with monitoring, revegetation, and controlled burns.

The Swale is invaluable as an outdoor classroom, readily accessible from all parts of the community. Students from Saskatoon and Martensville are already visiting the Swale, taking advantage of this nearby opportunity to learn about native plants and hear the distinctive call of the meadowlark.

Conserving Nature Within City Limits
Lobbying our politicians helps to shape the political agenda. And the more voices there are, the more likely it is that our words will be heeded and acted upon.

If you want to help protect the Northeast Swale, be sure to attend the public meeting at 7 pm, November 25, 2015, at the Frances Morrison Library. A viewing of the documentary The Nature of Cities will be followed by an update on development plans for the Northeast Swale.

The Northeast Swale Watchers are also on Facebook.

See Also
Urban Planning: An Evolving Appreciation for the Northeast Swale (a conversation with Mike Velonas, Meewasin Valley Authority, and Alan Wallace, City of Saskatoon)

Giving Nature a Voice at the Urban Planning Table

The Northeast Swale: Ancient River Valley, Urban Nature Reserve