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Russell Wangersky: Signs of a wetland

In the Synod West wetland.
In the Synod West wetland.

Last Friday, I wrote a column about the importance of language and the way word choice can carry unexpected and hidden weight.

Russell Wangersky

Then I started reading the various reports on the Synod West wetland, an area off Penney Crescent in St. John’s that a developer wants to have removed from its wetland designation, so 90 or so houses can be built there.

And I was reminded again that it’s not only what you say, but how you choose your words when you say it.

Late last week, I was up in the wetland, and it is everything — and nothing — that’s been said about it. Are the outer edges of the land blasted with plastic bags? Yes — you can stop and wonder how a plastic Butterball turkey wrapper ended up blown so far into the woods. Are there car parts and teen hangouts in the wood parts of the area? All of that.

But it’s also a quiet expanse of Labrador tea and stunted larch, of bog plants and sundew and iris.

Named as a wetland in 1993 — then confirmed as a wetland in 2004, reconfirmed by the city’s environment committee in 2012, and reconfirmed by city staff in 2015. But it’s back on the table again.

But back to language, and how the most recent consultant describes the Synod wetland.

“The local usage of the wetland and surrounding upland buffer appears to be significant, as indicated by a number of informal paths, ATV trails and a variety of litter, debris and derelict campsites encountered during the course of the field assessment,” the study by CBCL Ltd. says.

“While it does potentially provide habitat in the general sense for a variety of species, it is not considered to be a ‘significant’ wetland in terms of providing habitat for species at risk. The conditions encountered at the time of survey represent what is considered to be an exceedingly typical wetland type for the region.”

The study also points out that there are “numerous” other wetlands in the region.

The suggestion, clearly, is that the defining characteristic of a significant wetland is that it has to contain species at risk — which either did or didn’t occur in the Synod wetland. A 2012 Stantec report says a plant described as a “high conservation concern,” Gaultheria procumbens or teaberry, was found next to the wetland; “Occurrences of this species were found along the edge of the wetland in habitats considered transitional to the adjacent upland forest community. Although occurring outside the wetland, the majority of plants was observed within the proposed Project footprint and would therefore be affected by activities associated with the proposed Project.” (A Stantec official later told a city committee the plant wasn’t confirmed as being found in the wetland itself.)

Chair frame

But back to CBCL’s study.

“The wetland itself has been compromised by its proximity to human developments (i.e., road and residential), with evidence of degraded conditions throughout the wetland and within its adjacent upland. The groundwater discharge system behind Penney Lane is presumably accelerating drainage from the wetland and diminishing its capacity as an assumed groundwater recharge site. Similarly, the construction of roads on three sides of the subject wetland may be a limiting factor in its hydrology, effectively reducing the contributing area of the wetland.”

The words make it sound like the wetland is past saving, that it’s nothing special, that there’s no reason to bother with it. That yet another subdivision is a better choice, ironically, because of all the construction there’s been already. Soaked to your knees in water, the traffic noise muffled by the trees, it doesn’t feel like that at all.

A public meeting on the future of the site had been set for tomorrow night, but it was cancelled on Thursday and will be rescheduled.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in more than 30 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

Synod West Wetlands - Penney Crescent

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