Position Paper:

Goulbourn Landowners Group

Wetland Designation Problems



The Goulbourn Landowners Group represents rural landowners in the Goulbourn Ward of the City of Ottawa. 

The issue addressed in this report is the designation of properties as Provincially Significant Wetlands by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) and the City of Ottawa.  This designation directly affects approximately 60 landowners in rural Goulbourn.   A number of additional landowners are also affected as their property lies in the wetland buffer area.  To date, the Province and City have not notified these landowners in the buffer area of the impending restrictions that will have a negative impact on their property values and property rights.

We would like to make it clear that the Goulbourn Landowners Group are supporters of the environment and the preservation of wetlands. 

Our concerns and objections are with the procedures, methodology and regulatory aspects of wetlands designation.

The Problem

The present regulatory environment has four major problems:

o        No consultation.  Landowners were not informed of the process until their property had been designated by the Province.  No opportunity for input in the City’s process.

o        It over-designates.  Properties are designated as wetlands that bear no resemblance to the normal concept of wetland. 

o        It ignores property rights.  Designated properties are devalued.  Wetlands are a communal good, and are of no particular value to the individual owner, yet the owner is expected to absorb the cost when his / her land is devalued.

o        Designated properties and the buffer areas become a regulatory nightmare for the landowner. 

Due to the above, the landowner is forced to choose between destroying his wetland and seeing his life savings destroyed.  The landowner is therefore forced to become an opponent of the process.  

The Solution

The solution is to create an environment that no longer pits the landowner’s financial security against his / her environmental interests, and to create a process that does not force landowners into an adversarial role. 

Province of Ontario

Require consultation with the landowners throughout the process.  Require the province to explain to landowners the possible consequences of a wetlands study at the outset, and to inform them of their rights.

Review the evaluation procedures for wetlands to ensure that only real wetlands get designated.

Remove the ‘complexing’ provisions that allow the bureaucracy to designate property without doing a full Provincially Significant Wetland evaluation.

Require municipalities to provide full and fair compensation when properties are devalued, or to buy them at a fair market price (and with the owner’s consent). 

Review and simplify the mass of wetland regulations from multiple ministries (see Appendix A) and

o        Remove unnecessary regulation.

o        Provide a single access point where property owners can get a fast and simple answer and / or permit to make changes.

o        Require a 120 metre buffer zone around all residences, that would exclude wetlands (and other) designations and their buffer zones. 

Provide a process whereby landowners can appeal the designation simply and easily.  Alternatively, require a landowner’s permission before his / her property can be rezoned as wetland.

A moratorium on all existing and future designations until the above problems are resolved.

City of Ottawa

Require real consultation with the landowners throughout the process. 

Develop a process that is fair to landowners and does not create an adversarial relationship between the city and the landowners.

Provide full and fair compensation when properties are devalued, or to buy them at a fair market price (with the owner’s consent).  If the City cannot afford to provide compensation, it is completely unethical (but, sadly, not illegal) for the City to proceed with wetland designations.

Provide real incentives for landowners to maintain their wetlands. 

Apply wetlands regulation equally to rural and suburban properties.

Move to a system where all aspects of a property are considered at the time of a rezoning application, so that pre-emptive wetland designations are not necessary.   

A moratorium on all existing and future designations until the above problems are resolved.


In the current attempt to redesignate Goulbourn properties, the problems fall into four main areas that can be summarized as follows:

  • Procedural issues:
    • The land was redesignated by MNR before the landowners were even aware of the process.
    • The City has informed the landowners of MNR’s designation and the City’s intent to revise their Official Plan to reflect the new designations.  There is no room for negotiation in this matter; the only points for discussion are the exact boundaries of the wetland areas. 
    • The motivation for this process appears to be the desire to designate new wetlands to replace existing wetlands in the suburban areas of the city, which the city is failing to protect by allowing development.  Designating new wetlands does not create new wetland – it was already there – whereas allowing development of existing wetland will permanently destroy it. 
  • Methodological and regulatory problems:
    • The wetlands classification depends solely on the plants growing on the properties at the time of the evaluation (ref. 1 and Appendix B).  It does not take into account any other factors.  Nor does it require that the properties even remotely resemble a wetland.  The ‘indicator species’ for wetlands that the evaluation uses are not limited to wetlands. 
    • The existing evaluation was done by flying over the properties at 1000’, and by roadside observation.  Only a tiny fraction of the area is visible from the roadside, and the detail visible from 1000 feet is limited, so the result is arbitrary at best. 
    • The great majority of the affected properties are not Provincially Significant Wetlands in their own right.  They are being designated Provincially Significant using a method known as complexing that allows properties to be designated Provincially Significant if they are within 750 metres of an existing Provincially Significant Wetland, using much less demanding criteria.  These properties can then be used to complex further properties, and so on.  The result is that an existing Provincially Significant Wetland can be used to designate large areas without ever having to justify the Provincially Significant Wetland criteria.  The complexing regulation is of doubtful justice in any circumstances, but this use of it is a clear abuse of the concept. 
    • The wetlands classification system ignores the reasons properties are wet.  Many properties in the affected area are growing wetland plants because of spring flooding that is caused by the City’s failure to provide and maintain adequate drainage.  The City has a clear legal liability not to allow water from City property (particularly roadside ditches) to flood resident’s property.  The City has clearly been negligent and could be sued for the loss of property values. 
  • A violation of Property Rights:
    • A designation of Provincially Significant Wetland results in a drastic devaluation of the affected properties.  The value of general rural land falls from about $2500 per acre to about $200 per acre.  Farms and properties with homes built on them can be much more drastically affected.  Neither the City nor the Province is prepared to compensate the landowners for the loss of value.  Since wetlands are a communal good, and of no intrinsic value to the landowner, this is inexcusable. 
  • A regulatory nightmare:
    • Once designated, the owners of Provincially Significant Wetlands, and of all property in a 120 metre (400 foot) buffer zone, enter a bureaucratic nightmare where an environmental impact study may be required for any change to the property, no matter how trivial.  This can involve the Ministry of Natural Resources, Ministry of the Environment, Dept. of Fisheries and Oceans, Ministry of Agriculture, and possibly others (see Appendix A).  The costs can easily run into tens of thousands of dollars and take years to complete. 

Finally, we should point out that the good intentions of the city and provincial bureaucrats are likely to result in exactly the opposite of what they are trying to achieve. 

Rural landowners were, and are, good stewards of their properties.  Rural landowners are, on the whole, very much environmentalists, albeit of the practical rather than the armchair variety.  We have a direct interest in the welfare of our properties.  We have to drink our own water, dispose of our own sewage, and therefore cannot afford to abuse our environment.  In fact, rural landowners have a much better record of protecting wetlands than does the City and Province, which allow wetlands near suburban areas to be developed wholesale. 

Unfortunately, the consequences of a Provincially Significant Wetland designation are nothing short of draconian.  Landowners are so concerned about the restrictions that some are prepared to destroy their designated ‘wetlands’ rather than allow their life savings to be destroyed and their rights to enjoyment and management of their own properties to be usurped.

Procedural Issues

The Goulbourn Landowners Group has not determined the ultimate motivation for the investigation that resulted in the present properties being designated.  The application to the City of Ottawa to permit development of the property at 6851 Flewellyn Road has caused the City on behalf of the Province to initiate a study of wetlands in the area. 

The area in question is about 5 km from the suburban area of Stittsville, and has many smaller 2 – 10 acre lots containing residences, as well as larger lots and a few farms.  For a rural area, it has a relatively dense population.  Several residents have had their whole properties, including their homes, designated as wetland.

MNR Designation

In 2004, MNR and the City of Ottawa initiated a study “to identify wetlands and determine their potential to complex with the Goulbourn Wetland Complex.” (ref. 2). 

A letter was sent to the affected landowners indicating a study was underway and requesting permission to come onto their properties to evaluate their wetland status.  The letter did not discuss the process, warn of the potential for designation as a Provincially Significant Wetland or of the effects on property value, etc.  Most landowners figured nothing good could come of this and ignored the letter.

The city then used aerial photographs from 2002 to identify potential wetlands.  In September 2004, the City’s biologist flew over the target properties at 1000 feet to identify wetland plants and supplemented this with roadside surveys. 

In February 2005, the City of Ottawa sent the completed study to MNR, which designated the wetland areas as Provincially Significant Wetland based on their proximity to the existing Goulbourn Wetland Complex and the complexing regulations.  Altogether 262 hectares (about 650 acres) were designated.  At this point the landowners knew nothing of this and had had no chance to object or comment. 

So far as we have been able to ascertain, there is no way to appeal this decision.

These processes must be public and require the input and permission of the landowner. 

The regulations should require a 120 metre buffer zone around all residences, that would exclude wetlands (and other) designations and their buffer zones.  People need their own environment too!

City of Ottawa Official Plan

In April 2005, the City of Ottawa informed the landowners that their land had been designated by MNR, and of the City’s intent to update its official plan to re-zone the affected properties as wetlands.  This was an information meeting; landowners were permitted to ask questions but their input was not required or requested.  The city outlined the history and their ongoing plans to re-zone the affected properties.  At no point in the process do the landowners have an opportunity to have their concerns addressed or to object to what is taking place.  The landowners can only appeal the Official Plan Amendment to the OMB, but this will not affect the provincial designation. 

Following the meeting, the affected landowners have held two meetings to discuss the situation and have voted to incorporate an organization, the Goulbourn Landowners Group, to look after the interests or rural landowners and, specifically, to fight the wetlands designation.


The motivation for the wetlands study is unclear.  According to reference 2, the motivation for the study came from four factors:

o        An Environmental Impact Statement was submitted for a property along Flewellyn Road that identified the presence of wetlands that were unknown until this submission.

o        MNR deemed that the evaluation of the wetland was necessary in order to determine its significance.

o        Further examination by MNR identified several other unevaluated wetland areas adjacent to the development proposal and in the surrounding area.

o        Members of the public had submitted documentation to the MNR also identifying new wetland areas that were not currently mapped. 

However, it also appears that the City of Ottawa is motivated to designate wetlands to cover its own failings.  The City has been allowing development in many wetland areas in the suburban core.  In Goulbourn alone, there has been, and is ongoing, wholesale development of wetlands in the village of Stittsville.  The City is also proposing to allow development of the Carp River floodplain in Hazeldean.  This has resulted in protests from several environmental groups. 

In Stittsville, Brown’s Supermarket and the adjoining strip mall, at the junction of Main Street and Hazeldean Road, is built on wetland, as is the housing development directly east of it.  There is currently development of wetland north of this area, across the Hazeldean Road.  We could point out several other developments within the village of Stittsville. 

There is no reason that wetland within suburban areas should be treated any differently than wetland in rural areas.  In theory, this is already the case but, in practice, wetland within suburban areas gets developed.  The City must then find wetland in rural areas to designate in order to satisfy the environmental lobbyists.  As we have pointed out, designating more wetland does not create new wetland whereas developing wetland destroys it permanently. 

In fact, the new wetlands that the city is ‘creating’ to compensate for development are contrived, rather than real, wetlands.  The complexing rules allow any land growing wetland plants to be designated without a full Provincially Significant Wetland evaluation.  Using these rules, it would probably be possible to extend the current wetlands to stretch from one side of Ontario to the other without ever needing to do a Provincially Significant Wetland evaluation.  All that’s necessary is to find a few wetland plants within 750m of existing designated areas, designate that area, and repeat.

The City needs to revise its procedures to include the affected landowners and proceed with their permission and cooperation instead of trying to coerce them. 

Equal Application of the Wetlands Regulations

As mentioned above, the City is allowing development of suburban real wetlands while proceeding to designate contrived wetlands in rural areas.  The village of Stittsville has seen enormous growth since it received municipal water and sewer services about twenty years ago.  Almost all that growth has been developed on wetlands and is still being developed on wetlands.  We are not picking on Stittsville particularly – it’s just the nearest suburban area.  Similar examples could be found throughout the City of Ottawa. 

There is a definite dual standard here.  Urban residents and councilors are permitting the destruction of wetlands for suburban development.  Then they turn around and tell the rural residents that ‘we’ need to preserve our environment.  Perhaps the urban residents and councilors should look in the mirror and in their own backyards before preaching to others about the environment.

Of course, these people have ample excuses: “the land was never designated as wetland”, or “the OMB made us do it”.  Nevertheless, real wetland is being destroyed.  And many of these same people are condoning and encouraging such development by living in houses built on wetland.  We have never heard of an urban resident campaigning to do the environmentally responsible thing and boycott such housing. 

Given the record of the City and the Province in protecting wetlands, we have to conclude that wetlands are no safer in the hands of the City than they are currently.  It appears that the City and Province only protect wetlands that no-one wants to develop. 

Until the City is prepared to protect existing wetlands in suburban areas, it should cease and desist from harassing rural residents.

Methodological and Regulatory problems

A Bizarre Definition of Wetlands

MNR’s Ontario Wetland Evaluation System, Southern Manual (OWES manual, ref. 1) provides guidance for the biologists whose job is to evaluate wetlands.  This is a 200 page document that provides guidance on two topics:

  • What is a wetland?
  • What is a Provincially Significant Wetland?

On the first question, the manual appears to be designed to allow the evaluator maximum discretion in determining that an area is wetland.  For instance, the manual talks about four types of wetland (see Appendix B).   However, the technical definition is much more general (Appendix B again) and leads to nonsense such as the statement by Susan Murphy, the City’s coordinator for this project, that “land does not need to be wet to be wetland” (interview with Dave Stevens on Ottawa Morning, CBC Radio One, June 8th, 2005).

The designation of a wetland is based on the plant population alone.  The evaluation system doesn’t care if property is wet; doesn’t care why property is wet - e.g. city drainage policies; doesn’t care what was there yesterday or will be there tomorrow.  The sole criteria is that 50% of the plants must be wetland plants (or, more specifically, plants in the OWES manual’s list of indicator species for wetland plants, most of which will happily grow in non-wetland environments). 

Causes of Wetland Plants

In fact, problems on some of the designated properties are caused by spring flooding and, more specifically, by the City’s failure to provide adequate drainage.  The City is draining areas to north of the designated area, but making no provision for the increased water flow to pass through the area.  The City has a clear legal responsibility to provide such drainage.

So the process goes like this:

  • City fails to provide drainage
  • Causes spring flooding on landowners’ properties
  • Causes wetland plants to grow
  • City sees wetland plants
  • City designates property

Another example:  In the late 80’s, tree planting was in vogue and MNR had a Managed Forest Program to advise landowners on what trees to plant and provide assistance in planting them.  Some landowners have areas of tamaraks, recommended by MNR and planted under the Managed Forest Program.  Guess what?  Tamaraks are an indicator species for wetlands.  So:

  • Province recommends tamaraks
  • Landowner plants tamaraks
  • City sees tamaraks
  • City designates property

Wetland Types

There are two wetlands designations.  Basic wetland is defined by the plant species present, as indicated above.  However it is the Provincially Significant designation that causes problems, limits the landowner’s rights and devalues properties.  The Provincially Significant designation is desirable from the City’s perspective precisely because it limits the landowner’s rights to make changes to the wetland. 


In the current case, the vast majority of the designated properties not Provincially Significant in their own right; at best they are very marginal wetlands.  The City and Province have got around this inconvenience using the ‘complexing’ rules.  As noted above, complexing allows a basic wetland to be deemed Provincially Significant if it is within 750 metres of an existing Provincially Significant wetland.  The new Provincially Significant Wetland can then be used to complex further wetlands, using the same rules.

Complexing allows the City and Province to designate properties as Provincially Significant, without the inconvenience or cost of having to meet Provincially Significant Wetlands standards. 

Complexing allows the City and Province to designate marginal wetland as Provincially Significant – wetland that would never meet Provincially Significant Wetlands standards on its own merits. 

Complexing is fundamentally unjust and must be disallowed.

Property Rights


Landowners were told by the City representatives at the April 21st meeting that redesignation would not affect property values.  Then they said that the landowners need not pay property taxes on the designated areas (acreage only, not home value) provided they agree to maintain the wetland. 

According to real estate agents, redesignating land as Provincially Significant Wetland reduces its market value.  The property as a whole is also devalued. 

One agent estimates that, on average, land designated as Provincially Significant Wetland has its value reduced from about $2500/acre to $200/acre.  The reduction in property taxes works out to at most $10 - $20 /acre/year.  So landowners only need to stay on their properties for around 120 to 250 years to recoup the loss.  Farmers, who pay less tax on their acreage, will need to live on their property for several thousands of years to recoup their losses.  Selling up before the recovery period is up results in the landowner receiving the reduced price for his / her property and the buyer getting the tax credits. 

Some landowners have had their property value reduced by $250,000 or more.  The affected landowners can no more absorb these losses than can urban property owners.  For many of them, their property represents a large part, if not all of their savings.

Restricted Rights

Once designated, landowners are severely restricted in what they can do with their properties.  Appendix A lists some of the bureaucracies a landowner is expected to consult before making changes to his / her property.  In all likelihood, an environmental impact assessment will be required that could easily cost in the tens of thousands of dollars and take years to complete.  In other words, the landowner’s property is effectively frozen. 

If wetlands designations are to be acceptable to landowners, the City and Province must remove this over-regulation of property owners.  The bureaucrats’ assumption is that landowners will destroy their wetlands unless minutely supervised.  Yet the existence of undesignated wetlands contradicts this assumption, and the major forces on landowners to destroy their wetlands are precisely the over-regulation that comes with designation.  In fact, the only major destruction of wetlands is happening in suburban areas with the collusion of the City and Province.

Violation of Property Rights

This is a gross violation of property rights.  The City and Province should either provide adequate compensation and minimize the bureaucratic interference, or stop designating properties as Provincially Significant Wetland. 

If the City does not have the funds to compensate landowners, perhaps a tax on development of urban wetlands could be implemented to provide such funding.  Or perhaps a tax on suburban homeowners whose homes were built on wetlands?  However, it’s difficult to understand how a city with an annual budget in the two billion dollar range cannot find two or three million dollars for a one-time requirement as fundamental as property rights while proposing to spend almost thirty millions annually on cultural programs.

The Provincial government must remove the onerous restrictions, simplify the procedures for getting information on what changes require permits, and provide the means to obtain permits in a cost effective and timely manner.


1.        Ontario Wetland Evaluation System, Southern Manual, 1993, updated 2002, MNR.

2.        Presentation by Susan Murphy, City of Ottawa, Environmental Management, at the Information Meeting held on 2005-04-21 at 7:00 pm at the Goulbourn Municipal Building, 2135 Huntley Road, Stittsville.


For more information, contact the Goulbourn Landowners Group:

President:              Tony Walker                    613 831 1248

Media Contact:     Mike Westley                  613 831 2716


The author would like to thank several people who have reviewed this document and contributed valuable comments and suggestions.

Janet Bernard                 An affected landowner

Richard Bendall            Rural Council of Ottawa-Carleton

All errors and omissions are the responsibility of the author, Tony Walker, of the Goulbourn Landowners Group.

Appendix A:  Wetlands Legislation

The text below is taken directly from the Government of Ontario’s web site.

From http://www.on.ec.gc.ca/wildlife/docs/sources-e.html

Sources of Further Assistance

Depending on the type of project, you may wish to contact one or more of the following agencies.

Landowner Resource Centre (LRC)

Information on resource management, referrals to other agencies. In 613 area 1-800-387-5304, elsewhere 613-692-2390.

Local Stewardship Councils

Promote the wise use of soil, water, woodlands and other natural resources through partnerships between landowners, community, and resource organizations. Check your local phone book.

Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC)

Advice and financial support for restoration of wetlands with significant waterfowl value. 705-721-4444.

Wildlife Habitat Canada (WHC)

Landowner contact representatives, wetlands restoration planning assistance, conservation agreements, wetland securement. 613-722-2090.

Eastern Habitat Joint Venture (EHJV)

Support and funding for wetland protection and restoration in partnership with federal and provincial governments, DUC, WHC, and the Nature Conservancy of Canada.

The Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (OFAH)

Information, educational materials on habitat enhancement and recreational activities in wetlands. 705-748-6324. Invading Species Awareness Program in partnership with OMNR 1-800-563-7711

Federation of Ontario Naturalists (FON)

Educational materials on wetland conservation, nuisance species. 416-444-8419.

Environment Canada (DOE)

Information on habitat restoration techniques and federal tax credits for donations of ecologically sensitive lands. Check the blue pages of your local phone book.

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR)

Work permits, wetland evaluation, information on fish, wildlife, and wetland habitat protection and management. Check the blue pages of your local phone book.

Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA)

Farm drainage, best management practices. Check the blue pages of your local phone book.

Ontario Ministry of Environment and Energy (OMOEE)

Permits for water taking and chemical weed removal, information on ground water impacts, environmental assessment (EA) process. Check the blue pages of your local phone book.

Local Municipality

Local municipal planning and bylaws, natural heritage policies including wetlands policy, and environmental protection policies. Check the blue pages of your local phone book.

Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing (OMMAH)

Planning Act, natural heritage policies including wetlands policy. Check the blue pages of your local phone book.

Local Conservation Authority (CA)

Water supply and flood control, dredge and fill rules. Support for some habitat improvement projects. Check the blue pages of your local phone book.

From http://www.on.ec.gc.ca/wildlife/docs/red-tape-e.html  (The title has to be a joke!)

Unravelling the Red Tape

Many activities that are beneficial to wetlands do not require approval or permits. However, there are a number of laws and policies that may potentially apply to work in wetland areas (see below). Unfortunately, the complexity of laws and policies, levels of government, and different types of activities, make it impossible to give specific advice that will apply in all situations. Also, regulations and policies are continually reviewed and revised. Landowners planning work in or around wetlands in Ontario are encouraged to ask first whether their project will require approval or permits. Remember to check on any requirements before beginning any work around wetlands to avoid possible penalties and to ensure conservation of the resource. One or more of the many agencies previously listed under "Sources" will help you to determine what requirements currently apply.

From http://www.on.ec.gc.ca/wildlife/docs/legislation-e.html

Some Relevant Legislation



Protects or Regulates

Canada Fisheries Act

OMNR / Fisheries & Oceans Canada

Fish and fish habitat. Prohibits work that results in harmful alteration or destruction of fish habitat.

Conservation Authorities Act

Local Conservation Authority / OMNR

Flood plain areas. Work in watersheds and flow of floodwaters.

Drainage Act


Land drainage and drain maintenance. Work on drains must not result in harmful alteration of fish habitat nor destroy fish or fish eggs.

Endangered Species Act


Endangered plants, and wildlife.

Environmental Protection Act


Discharge of contaminants and emissions.

Game and Fish Act


Fish and wildlife. Regulates access to fish and wildlife resources through licensing.

Lakes and Rivers Improvement Act


Alterations to lakes and rivers. Requires approvals for any work that forwards, holds back or diverts water, such as channelization, pond creation/by-pass, dams, weirs, and locks.

Migratory Birds Convention Act

Environment Canada

Migratory birds through prevention of destruction of nests and habitat, and regulating hunting. Allows control of certain nuisance species.

Ontario Water Resources Act


Quality and quantity of surface and ground water resources.

Planning Act

Local Municipality / OMMAH

Prime agricultural lands, natural heritage features (including provincially significant wetlands), surface and groundwater. Provincial policies are to be considered when land use changes are proposed.

Public Lands Act


Public (Crown) lands (which includes beds of most navigable lakes, rivers and streams) and shore lands (including areas seasonally inundated with water adjacent to navigable waters).

Trees Act

Local Municipality

Woodlands. Requires permits for tree clearing under certain circumstances. Only applies in municipalities where bylaw enacted.

Natural Heritage Policy, including Wetlands Policy


Provincially significant wetlands through provisions of the Planning Act.

Appendix B:  OWES Definitions of Wetlands

Wetlands definitions

The OWES manual (ref. 1, p 41) recognizes four types of wetland that most people would agree with:


Bogs are peat-covered areas or peat-filled depressions with a high water table and a surface carpet of mosses, chiefly Sphagnum. The water table is at or near the surface in the spring, and slightly below during the remainder of the year. The mosses often form raised hummocks, separated by low, wet interstices. The bog surface is often raised, or, if flat or level with the surrounding wetlands, it is virtually isolated from mineral soil waters. Hence, the surface bog waters and peat are strongly acid and upper peat layers are extremely deficient in mineral nutrients. Peat is usually formed in situ under closed drainage and oxygen saturation is very low. Although bogs are usually covered with Sphagnum, sedges may grow on them. They may be treed or treeless but tree cover does not exceed 25%. Bogs are frequently characterized by a layer of ericaceous shrubs.

According to a definition by Damman and French (1987) the term "bog" refers to nutrient-poor, acid peatlands with a vegetation in which peat mosses (Sphagnum species), ericaceous shrubs and sedges (Cyperaceae) play a prominent role. Black spruce (Picea mariana) can dominate the vegetation of some peat bogs. Tamarack (Larix laricina) may be present but only in small numbers and usually only near the edge.


Fens are peatlands characterized by surface layers of poorly to moderately decomposed peat, often with well-decomposed peat near the base. They are covered by a dominant component of sedges, although grasses and reeds may be associated in local pools. Several moss species with narrow pH tolerances are common in fens and, if the evaluator is able to identify them, can be used as indicators of fen. Sphagnum may be present or absent. Often there is much low to medium height shrub cover, and sometimes a sparse layer of trees. The waters and peats are less acid than in bogs, and often are relatively nutrient rich and minerotrophic since they receive water through groundwater discharge from adjacent uplands.

Fens usually develop in situations of restricted drainage where oxygen saturation is relatively low and mineral supply is restricted. Usually very slow internal drainage occurs through seepage down very low gradient slopes, although sheet surface flow may occur during spring melt or periods of heavy precipitation or if a major local or regional aquifer discharges into the wetland. Some fen wetlands develop directly on limestone rock where minerotrophic waters are emerging through constant groundwater discharge.

Fen peats generally consist of mosses and sedges. Sphagnum, if present, is usually composed of different Sphagnum species than occur in bogs. Trees typical of fens are white cedar or tamarack.


Swamps are wooded wetlands with 25% cover or more of trees or tall shrubs. Occasionally, swamp communities have a strong component of low shrubs. In this case the tall shrub component must be dominant for the community to be considered a swamp (see marsh/swamp ecotone, below). In swamps, standing to gently flowing waters occur seasonally or persist for long periods on the surface. Frequently there is an abundance of pools and channels indicating subsurface water flow. The substrate is usually continuously waterlogged. Waters are circumneutral to moderately acid in reaction, and show little deficiency in oxygen or in mineral nutrients. The vegetation cover may consist of coniferous trees, tall shrubs, herbs and mosses. Many swamps are characteristically flooded in spring, with dry relict pools apparent later in the season. There is usually no deep accumulation of peat.

Swamps include both forest swamps (having mature trees) and thicket swamps (or shrub carrs). Thicket swamps are characterized by thick growths of tall shrubs such as willow, dogwood and alder. Both forest and thicket swamps have similar characteristics of water levels and chemistry. Both are assessed as "swamp" wetland type, but can be distinguished by the predominance of either "tree" or "shrub" form. Silver maple, elm, black ash and yellow birch are among the best indicators of a hardwood forest swamp while white cedar, tamarack and black spruce indicate conifer swamps. White cedar, however, also grows well in upland sites.


Marshes are wet areas periodically inundated with standing or slowly moving water, and/or permanently inundated areas characterized by robust emergents, and to a lesser extent, anchored floating plants and submergents. Surface water levels may fluctuate seasonally, with declining levels exposing drawdown zones of matted vegetation or mud flats. Water remains within the rooting zone of plants during at least part of the growing season. The substratum usually consists of mineral or organic soils with a high mineral content, but in some marshes there may be as much as 2 m of peat accumulation. Waters are usually circumneutral to slightly alkaline and there is relatively high oxygen saturation.

Marshes characteristically show zones or mosaics of vegetation, frequently interspersed with channels or pools of deep or shallow open water. They include open expanses of standing or flowing water which are variously called ponds, shallow lakes, oxbows, reaches or impoundments. Marshes may be bordered by peripheral bands of trees and shrubs but the predominant vegetation consists of a variety of emergent nonSouthern woody plants such as rushes, reeds, reed grasses, and sedges. Low shrubs such as sweetgale, red osier, and winterberry may also occur. Where open water areas occur, a variety of submerged or floating plants flourish.

However, the technical definition of a wetland is much more generic and opens the way for designation of a much wider range of properties (OWES, p5):

In this evaluation system wetlands are defined as:

"Lands that are seasonally or permanently flooded by shallow water as well as lands where the water table is close to the surface; in either case the presence of abundant water has caused the formation of hydric soils and has favoured the dominance of either hydrophytic or water tolerant plants".

In fact, however, the manual finally uses criteria based solely on the plant population of an area.  This is stated in several slightly different and sometimes contradictory ways in various parts of the manual.  A typical statement occurs on page 13:

The wetland boundary is drawn where 50% of the plant community consists of upland species.

From statements by the City’s staff, it appears that the plant population is the only criteria used by the current study.

This leads to nonsense such as the statement by Susan Murphy, the City’s coordinator for this project, that “land does not need to be wet to be wetland” (interview with Dave Stevens on Ottawa Morning, CBC Radio One, June 8th, 2005).

Basic and Provincially Significant Wetlands

The OWES manual distinguishes between wetland and Provincially Significant Wetland.  The OWES manual defines the limits of wetland in several places, for example, the definition on page 13 quoted above.  

To be Provincially Significant, a wetland needs to meet many additional requirements, and the evaluation includes “Biological, Social, Hydrological, and Special Features” (OWES, p5). 

However, the complexing rules allow basic wetlands to be deemed Provincially Significant on the basis that they are within 750 metres of an existing Provincially Significant Wetland.  This provides a convenient shortcut that the Province and City are using to designate marginally wet properties that would never qualify for the Provincially Significant Wetland designation in their own right. 

Complexing is described on page 17 and following of the OWES manual.  It contains several loopholes that allow the bureaucracy to extend an existing Provincially Significant wetland to wetland of dubious value.  The 750 metre rule has already been described. In addition, complexed wetlands do not need to meet the minimum 2 ha. size of other wetlands. In fact no minimum size is specified.  By combining these rules, it should not be hard to find tiny ‘wetland’ areas within 750 metres of each other that will allow the bureaucrats to extend an existing wetland indefinitely and to link an existing wetland to almost any desired area.

Indicator Species

The OWES manual lists indicator species for wetland and upland in its Appendix 5, page 130:




TREES - Woody vegetation greater than 6 metres in height

TALL SHRUBS - Woody vegetation 1 to 6 metres in height, often with distinct trunk. Includes stunted and sapling trees species.

LOW SHRUBS - Woody vegetation less than 1 m in height, with dense foliage and several to many stems.

NARROW-LEAVED EMERGENTS - erect, rooted, herbaceous monocots which maybe temporarily or permanently flooded at the base but are exposed at the upper portion.

BROAD-LEAVED EMERGENTS - broad-leaved plants less than 1 metre in height.

ROBUST EMERGENTS - stout, erect emergents from 1.5 to 3 metres in height.

FLOATING PLANTS - rooted, vascular hydrophytes with leaves floating horizontally on the water surface.

FREE-FLOATING PLANTS - non-rooted, free-moving, vascular hydrophytes floating on the water surface.

HERBS (GROUND COVER -- gc) - Erect non-woody (herbaceous) plants growing in moist but exposed soil or, occasionally, very shallow water. Includes ferns. * Tree and shrub species marked with an asterisk grow only in wetlands. Other species listed are often found in wetlands but may also occur in moist upland locations.


Note that plant species are listed under the wetland type where they are most common. Many species occur in more than one wetland type. A few species can be used to identify wetland type, particularly for bog and fen. These species are marked as indicators.



* Silver Maple Acer saccharinum

Red Maple Acer rubrum

* Black Ash Fraxinus nigra

* Black Willow Salix nigra

Swamp White Oak Quercus bicolor

American Elm Ulmus americanus

Balsam Poplar Populus balsamifera

Eastern White Cedar Thuja occidentalis

* Tamarack Larix laricina

* Black Spruce Picea mariana


Tall Shrubs

* Speckled Alder Alnus rugosa

Willow Salix spp. (various)

Red-osier Dogwood Cornus stolonifera

* Poison (swamp) Sumac Rhus vernix

* Buttonbush Cephalanthus occidentalis

* Winterberry Ilex verticillata


Low Shrubs

* Swamp Rose Rosa palustris

* Water Willow Decodon verticillatus

Spiraea Spiraea alba and tomentosa

Sweet Gale Myrica gale

Snowberry Gaultheria hispidula



Jewelweed Impatiens capensis

Water Hore-hound Lycopus americanus

Royal Fern Osmunda regalis

Sensitive Fern Onoclea sensibilis

Beggarticks Bidens spp.


- BOG -


* Black Spruce2 Picea mariana

* Tamarack Larix laricina

Gray Birch Betula populifolia

Eastern White Pine Pinus strobus

(occasional, mature bogs)


Tall Shrubs

* Mountain Holly2 Nemopanthus mucronatus

* Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa

* Dwarf Birch Betula pumila

Northern Wild Raisin Viburnum cassinoides

* Winterberry Ilex verticillata


Low Shrubs

Leatherleaf Chamaedaphne calyculata

Sheep Laurel2 Kalmia angustifolia

* Bog Laurel2 Kalmia polifolia

* Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa

Swamp Blueberry2 Vaccinium corymbosum

Labrador Tea Ledum groenlandicum

Bilberry2 Vaccinium myrtilloides

Black Huckleberry Gaylussacia baccata

* Cranberry Vaccinium macrocarpon or oxycoccus

Narrow-leaved Emergents

Carex Carex oligosperma2

Cottongrass Eriophorum spissum2

Cottongrass Eriophorum virginicum2



Pitcher Plant Sarracenia purpurea

Sundews Drosera spp.

Three-leaved False Solomon's Seal Smilacina trifolia

Marsh St. John's-wort Triadenum fraseri

Royal Fern Osmunda cinnamomea

Virginia Chain Fern2 Woodwardia virginica



Sphagnum Sphagnum spp.

2 Bog indicator, i.e. rarely occurs in fens.


- FEN -


* Tamarack Larix laricina

Tall Shrubs

* Hoary Willow Salix candida

Silky Dogwood Cornus obliqua

·         Dwarf Birch Betula pumila


Low Shrubs

Leatherleaf Chamaedaphne calyculata

* Bog Willow3 Salix pedicellaris

Sweet Gale Myrica gale

* Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa

Labrador Tea (occasional) Ledum groenlandicum

* Bog Rosemary3 Andromeda glaucophylla

* Alder-leaved Buckthorn Rhamnus alnifolia

Shrubby Cinquefoil Potentilla fruiticosa



Pitcher Plant Sarracenia purpurea

Sundews Drosera spp.

Buckbean3 Menyanthes trifoliata

Three-leaved False Solomon's Seal Smilacina trifolia

Marsh St. John's-wort Triadenum fraseri

Royal Fern Osmunda cinnamomea

Grass-of-Parnassus Parnassia glauca

Narrow-leaved Emergents

Carex Carex chordorrhiza3

Carex Carex lasiocarpa3

Carex Carex limosa3



Sphagnum Sphagnum spp.

"Brown Mosses" Campylium stellatum

Drepanocladus revolvens

Tomenthypnum nitens

Scorpidium scorpioides

3 Indicator species for fen, i.e. rarely occurs in bog.



No or only scattered living or dead trees and shrubs.


Marsh Fern Thelypteris palustris

Water Hore-hound Lycopus uniflorus

Marsh Speedwell Veronica scutellata

Bedstraw Galium spp.

Narrow-leaved Emergents

Wild Rice Zizania spp.

Burreed Sparganium spp.

Cordgrass Spartina pectinata

Reed Canary Grass Phalaris arundinacea

Bluejoint Calamagrostis canadensis

Rice Cut Grass Leersia oryzoides

Sedges (many species) Carex spp.

Rushes (many species) Juncus spp.


Robust Emergents

Cattails Typha spp.

Bulrushes Scirpus spp.

Common Reed Grass Phragmites communis

Broad-leaved Emergents

Pickerel-weed Pontederia cordata

Water Arum Calla palustris

Arrowheads Sagittaria spp.

Water Plantains Alisma spp.

Smartweeds Polygonum spp.

Free-floating Plants

Big Duckweed Spirodela polyrhiza

Lesser Duckweed Lemna minor

Star Duckweed Lemna trisulca

Watermeal Wolffia spp.

Frog's-bit Hydrocharus morsus-ranae


Floating Plants

White Water-lily Nymphaea odorata

Yellow Water-lily Nuphar variegatum

Pondweeds Potamogeton spp.

Water Smartweed Polygonum amphibium

Floating-heart Nymphoides cordata

Water-shield Brasenia schreberi



Pondweed Potamogeton spp.

Coontail Ceratophyllum demersum

Water-milfoils Myriophyllum spp.

American Eel-grass Vallisneria americana

Waterweeds Elodea spp.

Bladderworts Utricularia spp.

Muskgrasses (an algae)

Stoneworts Chara spp.



Tree Species - found in Upland, or in Wetland Margins

Sugar Maple Acer saccharum

American Beech Fagus grandifolia

Bitternut Hickory Carya cordiformis

White Ash Fraxinus americana

Red oak Quercus rubra

Ironwood Ostrya virginiana

Basswood Tilia Americana


Upland Shrubs - tall or low

Buffaloberry Shepherdia canadensis

Leatherwood Dirca palustris

Red Raspberry Rubus idaeus

Black Raspberry Rubus occidentalis

Snowberry Symphoricarpos albus

Beaked Hazel Corylus cornuta



Bracken Fern Pteridium aquilinum

Bull Thistle Cirsium vulgare

Queen Anne's Lace Daucus carota

Trilliums Trillium spp.

Wild Ginger Asarum canadense

Devil's Paintbrush Hieracium aurantiacum

Black-eyed Susan Rudbeckia hirta

Burdock Arctium minus


The astute reader may have noticed a slight preponderance of wetland plants, and may be wondering if the evaluation is biased towards finding wetlands. 

The reader may also have noticed that most of the species listed as wetland indicator species are not confined to wetlands and can grow in a variety of locations.  This makes the accuracy and validity of the evaluation highly suspect.