Passionate about Alberta’s wetlands 

Wetland research in oil sands

If you hear “wetlands,” and all you can think of is quacking ducks, clouds of mosquitos and soggy feet, you’re not alone. But after spending a few minutes talking with Ashlee Mombourquette, you may end up convinced that a day conducting sampling in a remote wetland in the oil sands could be the highlight of your summer. 

“Every day in the field is completely different and equally fun,” the University of Calgary master’s candidate relates. “I know a lot of people don't like wet feet, but when you're doing what you love, how can you be mad about getting a little water in your boots?”

Mombourquette’s love of the outdoors and science started when she was young, while hiking and camping with her family. Her enthusiasm to grow her knowledge eventually led her to become a researcher with the Boreal Wetland Reclamation Assessment Program (BWRAP).

BWRAP is headed by the University of Calgary’s Jan Ciborowski, the Senior NSERC/COSIA Industrial Research Chair in Oil Sands Wetland Reclamation. It is sponsored by COSIA and its members and is developing guidance for evaluating the success of wetland reclamation in the oil sands region. 

Inspired by nature

“When we were out in nature, my mum would point out the Indian paintbrush flowers or the poplar trees, and then later she’d start testing us on what we had learned. Those early experiences took me down the path of receiving my undergraduate degree in environmental science from the University of Lethbridge, and then my master’s at the University of Calgary today,” she says.

Her undergraduate degree included two eight-month work terms with Suncor, which further fueled her interest in wetlands. She contributed to research investigating water and closure technologies, including constructed treatment wetlands for Suncor’s oil sands sites in northeastern Alberta where wetlands comprise about 60 per cent of the total land area.

“Everyone has heard of the word wetlands, but they don’t really understand them,” Mombourquette explains. “You can go out into nature and see the water, the trees growing, and the wildlife. What you don’t see is wetlands as an entire natural system, with a unique role in capturing and storing carbon and filtering and cleaning water.”

Collecting important data

This past summer, Mombourquette worked with a seven-person field team studying 40 wetlands, including 20 on Syncrude’s Mildred Lake lease, and 20 in other areas of the Fort McMurray region. While Mombourquette focused on the plants, the rest of the team looked at invertebrates (animals such as insects and snails that have no backbone), and water and soil chemistry.

“Being able to account for all parts of the ecosystem — flora and fauna, hydrology, and soil— and understanding from many viewpoints how they operate and function together is what allows us to identify these measures of success,” she explains. “Traditional knowledge is another measure of wetland success. For Indigenous communities, success could be the presence of certain plants for eating or medicinal uses, or evidence of certain animal tracks such as muskrats on the land.”

Industry involvement key

“Industry collaboration in this work is vital,” Mombourquette adds. “Beyond sponsorship and providing access to the land; operators have detailed documentation of their activities – where they moved land, had soil stockpiles, or planted seedlings. This information is very beneficial in understanding the nuances of individual sites which can vary widely across the region.”

Mombourquette’s study of the wetlands will continue, as she defends her master’s thesis and moves on to a job as a wetland vegetation ecologist. “The reclamation efforts of the oil sands industry has included intentionally creating wetlands. In other areas that were reclaimed to an upland boreal forest, wetlands are spontaneously forming on their own. The creation and formation of these wetlands are carefully studied and monitored to ensure they are successful,” she says. “BWRAP’s work is an important part of this.”

Conducting wetland research is just one priority for COSIA’s Land Environmental Priority Area (EPA), which focuses on reducing the environmental impacts of oil sands mining and in situ operations on the land and wildlife of northern Alberta. COSIA members and the EPA collaborate with universities, government and research institutes, industry and the wider public. Large-scale research programs like BWRAP provide the fundamental knowledge that underpins and informs best practice and allows industry to continually up its game.