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Characterization of Key Performance Measures at the Reclaimed Sandhill Wetland: Implications for Achieving Wetland Reclamation Success in the Athabasca Oil Sands.

Hartsock, J. A.. 2020. Southern Illinois University Carbondale


Fens and marshes are important landscape features in northern Alberta, Canada that occupy a significant portion of the Oil Sands Administration Area (OSAA). Disturbance from oil sands mining activities has affected many wetlands in the region. Because of this disturbance, oil sands mining companies near Fort McMurray, Alberta (e.g., Syncrude Canada Ltd. and Suncor Energy) are legally obligated to return previously mined areas to systems that support land uses equivalent to the pre-disturbance landscape. The experimental Sandhill Watershed is the first attempt by an oil sands operator (Syncrude Canada Ltd.) to construct a watershed above a previously mined landscape potentially capable of supporting a peat-forming wetland. Water samples were collected over a ten-year period (years 2009 - 2019) from near-surface and ground water sampling locations in the wetland area. Here, I present a history of dissolved ion concentrations measured at the reclaimed wetland. I also provide a comprehensive synopsis of dissolved ion concentrations obtained from twelve reference wetlands, as a comparison against the reclamation site. From the data provided, results indicate that the dominant anions and cations present in the Sandhill Wetland near-surface water (e.g., bicarbonate, sulfate, chloride, sodium, calcium, and magnesium) have increased annually since the first full growing season. Regression analysis shows near-surface sodium and chloride concentrations will reach sub-urface levels in approximately 8 and 7 years, respectively. If these trends manifest, the chemical conditions at the Sandhill Wetland will be analogous to saline fens in the future. The reclaimed wetland currently exhibits attributes similar to saline fens and slightly brackish marshes. For race metals, heavy metals, dissolved nitrogen, dissolved phosphorus, and dissolved organics, the Sandhill Wetland was quite comparable to all the reference wetlands. Of note, naphthenic acid and polycyclic hydrocarbon concentrations were below detection limits at the reclamation site, an important discovery as many of these compounds cause problems for insects, amphibians, and birds at low concentrations. I recommend monitoring of both water chemistry and plant composition patterns at the Sandhill Wetland should continue to capture important successional changes that may occur as the site matures.