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Conservation of Wetlands and Bodies of Water

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Wetlands include all sites that are saturated with water or flooded for long enough for the water to have an influence on the nature of the soil or the composition of the vegetation. They include marshes, swamps, ponds and peatlands. Bodies of water include the shores, banks and littoral zones, as well as the flood and mobility zones, of lakes or watercourses.

In Québec, wetlands occupy approximately 18 million hectares or 180,000 km2, covering around 11% of the entire territory1. Québec also features some 3.6 million freshwater bodies of water, which cover a surface area of nearly 21 million hectares or 210,000 km2. In addition, there are tens of thousands of rivers and streams that stretch on for millions of kilometres.

Although wetlands and bodies of water were considered unusable for development in the past, we now recognize their important contribution to the people and economy of the province. These ecosystems are known for their rich plant and animal life, which has adapted to the particular conditions of these watery environments. With abundant vegetation and aquatic invertebrates, wetlands and bodies of water form the basis of a food web that supports populations of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. They provide a permanent or temporary habitat for numerous animal species, many of which are in a precarious situation. These habitats provide a place for these species to find food, reproduce and rest. When the integrity of these environments is threatened, all of the species they support are at risk of suffering the consequences.

Wetlands and bodies of water also play a vital role in the water network society depends on, in cities and rural areas alike. Some of these environments contribute to the quality of our drinking water, as their vegetation purifies the water and filters out pollution. They can also help to maintain water reserves by replenishing groundwater. Others control shoreline erosion and limit flood damage by reducing the severity of flooding and regulating river flow. In the event of a drought, they can also lessen the drop in water levels. Lastly, some ecosystems, such as peatlands, sequester massive amounts of carbon, which helps to reduce atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases.

All of these ecosystems provide valuable services to communities, while also saving society considerable sums of money. However, human activity has been causing a significant reduction in the surface area of wetlands and bodies of water for decades. Already made fragile by global warming, these ecosystems are directly impacted by urban sprawl, road and infrastructure construction, mining and agriculture, which are all related to developing Québec’s territory.

In a context where climate change is increasing the frequency of extreme weather events such as flooding, wetlands and bodies of water are indispensable in helping society to better adapt by easing the adverse effects of these events. It is therefore crucial to conserve them, particularly in areas where urban development has contributed to their artificialization, degradation or disappearance. The conservation of wetlands and bodies of water includes their protection, their sustainable use, their restoration and the creation of new ones.

Conserving these ecosystems is at the heart of the mission of the Ministère de l’Environnement, de la Lutte contre les changements climatiques, de la Faune et des Parcs (MELCCFP), as they perform essential ecological functions and are a critical part of Québec’s biodiversity. The legal and regulatory framework governing wetlands and bodies of water reflects the importance of this issue and sets out various measures to prevent their loss.

For any questions about our approach to conserving Québec’s wetlands and bodies of water and for tools and guides, please contact milieuxhumides@environnement.gouv.qc.ca. Contact your regional office (French) for information on regional issues or specific projects.

Legal and regulatory framework

The legal framework governing wetlands includes a number of laws and regulations, particularly the Act respecting the conservation of wetlands and bodies of water (French).

The laws and regulations provide definitions of the various terms associated with the types of wetlands and bodies of water. For more information, see the page on laws and regulations (French). The page on environmental analysis for projects in wetlands or bodies of water (French) is another source of useful information.

Main methods of conservation

The objective of no net loss

Attaining the objective of no net loss of wetlands and bodies of water is pivotal to managing these ecosystems. The Act respecting the conservation of wetlands and bodies of water has also included this objective in the Water Act (French).

The objective of no net loss is intended to balance the negative and positive effects of human activities on wetlands and bodies of water. The goal of the objective is not to restrict land use planning but to achieve a better balance between gains and losses in surface area, ecological functions and biodiversity within a given area. As a result, losses that cannot be avoided must be compensated for by prioritizing the restoration of degraded wetlands and bodies of water or creating new ones. This principle is the foundation of the “avoid-minimize-compensate” approach, which has been adopted by a number of countries as a means of conserving wetlands, biodiversity and natural environments.

To comply with the objective of no net loss, the gains following the development of an area must be at least equivalent to the losses and residual damage caused by the project. The goal is to restore or create ecosystems whose ecological functions and biodiversity will eventually be comparable to what was initially observed in the disturbed environments in order to restore functional wetland and water ecosystems to the affected areas.

Restoration projects carried out in lieu of the financial contribution required under the Regulation respecting compensation for adverse effects on wetlands and bodies of water or projects carried out as part of the program to restore wetlands or bodies of water and create new ones (French) will help to compensate for losses of wetlands and bodies of water. Ideally, they will help to make gains in that area.

A report concerning the attainment of this objective will be tabled in the National Assembly in 2027.

Related links

Ministerial authorizations

Identification, delineation and characterization of wetlands

Identification, delineation and characterization of bodies of water

Estimating carbon stocks in wetlands

Others

1 This data has been taken from a compilation carried out by MELCCFP in 2019 using an updated methodology and recent cartographic sources.