‘Build it and they will come’: challenging conventional wisdom sparks a breakthrough in wetland restoration

A fen is the most common wetland type in the boreal forest, covering more than 50 percent of the landscape. Yet, until recently, fens were not the target of reclamation efforts in the same way as less prevalent marshes and shallow open water wetlands.

Conventional wisdom suggested it would be impossible to reconstruct a sustainable fen that could operate in the same way as a natural one. But innovation is proving conventional wisdom wrong.

In 2013, Suncor opened a three-hectare reconstructed fen at its oil sands base plant near Fort McMurray. Five years of subsequent research and monitoring have demonstrated that Suncor’s Nikanotee fen (pronounced Nee-ga-no-tee; named for a Cree word that means “future”) is behaving very much like its natural counterparts, with a stable water table capable of supporting aquatic plant life and storing carbon.

The fen post-construction, pre-planting (June 15 2013). PHOTO CREDIT: Andrea Borkenhagen

A second five-year research and monitoring phase has just begun, with the ultimate goal of replicating the success of the fen project at multiple mine sites across the oil sands region. To that end, the learnings from the Suncor-led innovation are being shared with all COSIA members.

Suncor’s Christine Daly, currently a senior advisor for reclamation technology development, was involved with the fen project almost from the beginning. Fresh out of university in 2007 and new on the job at Suncor as a wetland research and development coordinator, Christine took on the ambitious assignment of being the internal lead on a project many believed simply could not be done.

“There had never been a fully reconstructed fen built anywhere in the world before. A lot of people said it would be a waste of time and money. After all, peatlands take hundreds, if not thousands of years, to naturally develop.” – Christine Daly, Suncor

Unlike other peat-forming wetlands, fens are primarily fed by groundwater rather than surface water alone, as is the case for bogs. Duplicating what nature does would be daunting task.

“There had never been a fully reconstructed fen built anywhere in the world before,” says Christine. “A lot of people said it would be a waste of time and money. After all, peatlands take hundreds, if not thousands of years, to naturally develop.”

The University of Waterloo’s Jonathan Price challenged that way of thinking. In partnership with the Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA), he developed a hydrogeological feasibility modelling study that was the innovative spark for designing and, later, building the Nikanotee fen.

“The model was mostly complete by the time I joined Suncor,” recalls Christine. “The results basically suggested, ‘if you build it, they will come.’ In other words, if you build a fen wetland watershed using such and such materials, and a specified geometry, such as 1m depth of peat, you stand a good chance of creating a sustainable reconstructed or reclaimed fen that could support aquatic plant life and, ultimately, wildlife.”

The fen post-construction and post-planting during Fen Grand Opening Ceremony (Aug 26 2013). PHOTO CREDIT: Gord McKenna

Over the next several years, Christine worked with a multidisciplinary team of internal and external researchers, academics, engineers and consultants (Dr. Price, for one, remains a lead investigator to this day). The reclaimed fen they developed—one of only two in the world—utilizes materials on the mine site, including overburden, reused peat soils, tailings sand and petroleum coke. It is supplied with groundwater discharge from a constructed upland aquifer. The total watershed area is 32 hectares.

“All of this involved a huge learning curve, especially for me,” says Christine. “None of us were completely within our own comfort zone. But we collectively used our best knowledge and science of the day, like the modelling results, to come up with fen watershed design and move forward.”

Since 2013, ongoing research and monitoring of the Nikanotee fen has been conducted by students from five universities and colleges—Waterloo, Calgary, Colorado State, Wilfrid Laurier and Keyano—as well as Suncor staff.

A five-year review of the project shows that the fen is meeting all three major benchmarks for sustainable performance.

Christine Daly with Emma Curtis (winner of the naming contest) at the grand opening. PHOTO CREDIT: Gord McKenna

First, the water table is holding stable through periods of both moderately-low precipitation (i.e. drought) and high precipitation (i.e. floods). This is critical because the initial goal of the Nikanotee Fen project was to establish the hydrology necessary to maintain fen plant communities in a constructed fen. The monitoring results indicate the watershed supplies enough water, in wet and dry years, to self-sustain fen wetland plants. This means it doesn’t require mechanical pumping of water.

Second, the fen is supporting a variety of local fen plant species. Twenty-six separate species have been planted, including a variety of trees, shrubs, grasses, rushes, sedges and carnivorous plants. In addition, many species were transferred into the fen through the moss layer. Some plant species are surviving better than others, largely due to the water level and associated competition.

Third, the fen is accumulating peat and storing carbon, a key positive function of peatlands.

Over the next five years, a key goal is to improve plant biodiversity, says Lisa Bridges, a reclamation specialist who will coordinate the second phase of fen research and monitoring for Suncor.

“Vegetation species diversity wasn’t one of the initial goals of our study, but it will be going forward,” adds Lisa. “We are hoping to adjust the water level down a bit and plant more species to improve diversity and survival. Phase two will be about further improving the sustainability of the fen and making it more biologically similar to natural fens.”

Why is fen reconstruction considered so critical to overall mine reclamation efforts?

One key reason, says Christine, is that Indigenous stakeholders, in particular, have said they want to see reclaimed landscapes that look similar to what was there prior to oil sands development, with native plants used for traditional purposes, like cranberry gathering, that draw back familiar wildlife.

Another important factor is carbon sequestration. “Prior to disturbance, these peatlands have been storing up thousands of years of carbon in the form of partially decomposed plant matter,” says Christine. “If, as we mine for oil, we can immediately reconstruct the watershed and get plants back on top of reused peat in reconstructed fens then we’ll be retaining and continuing to store carbon the way peatlands always have.”

By sharing results from the Nikanotee fen with fellow COSIA members, adds Christine, “we expect other companies will be able to take the design and replicate it at their mine sites. It really is about collaborating and I certainly hope to see more fens in the near future across the region.”

The technology could also have applicability to other industrial operations in the boreal forest, including forestry as well as uranium, gold, coal and peat mining.

Nikanotee fen (Summer 2016).

After a decade of involvement with the fen project, Christine cites two overarching lessons. The first is the willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. The second is the importance of seeking the best expert advice.

“With the right team and the right focus, you can get to a solution to almost any challenge.” 


Christine Daly, M.Sc., Senior Advisor, Reclamation Tehcnology Development at Suncor Energy

Lisa Bridges, M.Sc., Reclamation Specialist at Suncor Energy