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For most Albertans, the word wetland brings an image to mind. Some may picture a beaver quietly going about its work of building a lodge, or a flock of Canada geese feeding on a crisp fall morning. Others may imagine areas that are difficult to move through with their tractor or truck. The diversity of attitudes towards wetlands are as great as the functions and values wetlands provide. Attitudes have changed over time and with those changes have come new challenges on how to deal with wetlands in Alberta.

Wetlands are a halfway world between the water and land ecosystems and have some characteristics of both. Because wetland characteristics can range from aquatic to terrestrial, there is no single, universally recognized definition of a wetland. In Alberta, wetlands are generally defined as areas where the land is saturated with water long enough to have poorly drained soils. They also contain water-loving plants and biological processes suited to wet areas. Wetlands, neither occur nor function in isolation rather they are part of a larger working ecosystem. The surrounding margins and adjacent landscapes are also vital to the functioning of healthy wetlands.

Lakes are not considered wetlands. To be a lake, a body of water must have well defined beds and banks, some type of outlet, be free of current or flow and must be reasonably permanent. Wetlands may be associated with areas adjacent to lake shores (at inlets, outlets or shallow bays) or to stream or river flood plains that are regularly flooded. These areas support wetland communities since they have all of the necessary conditions to be defined as a wetland.

Wetlands occur in depressions or low areas where the ground is saturated with water or is flooded for a period of time. Wetlands are found throughout Alberta. In fact, approximately 21 percent of Alberta is covered by wetlands. Most are on public land, but some are on private land, Native reserves and Metis Settlement lands. If you traveled northward from the Alberta-Montana border, you would notice an increasing number of wetlands. The greatest number of wetlands in the province are located in northern Alberta and most of these are permanent wetlands, holding water year-round. There are fewer permanent wetlands in central and southern Alberta. In these areas, wetlands are usually temporary, holding water only in the spring, or semi-permanent, holding water until the hot weather dries them out. The climatic conditions and shape of the land affect whether a wetland is temporary, semi-permanent, or permanent. Climate, land features, surface and groundwater flow, vegetation and soils determine the type and extent of wetlands.