• Jordan d’Almeida

Saskatoon’s Northeast Swale

Exploring the Margin of Environmental Protection and Urban development

NE Swale
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Executive Summary

This report examines Saskatoon’s Northeast Swale (the Swale) and how the ecologically sensitive area has been managed and protected against growing urbanization in the area. Although the protection of the Swale, broadly speaking, refers to ecological protection. The lessons learned through this process are also relevant for understanding best management practices (BMP) for water management, as ecology and hydrology are intimately connected.

The research for this case relies heavily on the qualitative analysis of four interviews with key stakeholders. There is an increasing body of research being done at the University of Saskatchewan dealing with the Swale. In many cases, this research is beyond the scope of this case study but is useful for a more in-depth understanding of the area. This case focuses on management, governance and development policies.

The Swale is hydrologically and ecologically important to the area. It provides water filtration, water storage and can mitigate flooding. It is also habitat for many rare prairie species. (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2015). However, new neighbourhoods are being developed around the Swale and the Saskatoon Freeway is being planned to cross the Swale. (City of Saskatoon Planning and Development Branch, 2013; Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways, 2020). Although encroaching urbanization will contribute to the degradation of the Swale through, increased pollution, environmental contamination and the disruption of the natural ecology, (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2013) awareness and advocacy for the swale is also growing in response to the development.

The protection of the Swale is ongoing since 1979 when the Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) was created by a Provincial Act. (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2015). The Authority and the City developed several plans and guidelines to govern development in and through the Swale: Northeast Swale Development Guidelines (2012), Northeast Swale Resource Management Plan (2013) and the Meewasin Northeast Swale Master Plan (2015). These detailed plans and guidelines have been adopted by city planners and govern the development of new neighbourhoods and roads that interact with the Swale.

A qualitative analysis of interview unearthed several themes that highlight the nuance of the work being done to protect and develop the Swale. The major themes identified are as follows:

  • The mandate for environmental protection is growing in organizations that traditionally focus on development

  • The MVA and the City of Saskatoon have created a de facto legal protection for the Swale

  • The MVA and City’s current protection policies may not protect the Swale in the long-term and are susceptible to changes in political will and budget constraints

  • City plans are designed decades before the physical neighbourhoods are built. This can cause gaps in best practices and limit environmental advocacy

  • Measuring the value of ecologically sensitive areas is difficult but new techniques like the Natural Capital Asset Valuations (NCAV) are being used by the U of S and City of Saskatoon and may increase our ability to value natural assets


The purpose of the report is to gain a greater understanding of how communities develop and adapt optimal or “best” practices for sustainable water management through community case studies. This case examines Saskatooon’s Northeast Swale (the Swale), which is portion of the Greater Swale that falls within Saskatoon’s City limits, one of the largest cities in Regina located in south-central Saskatchewan, Canada, on the South Saskatchewan River, 352 km northwest of Regina (Map 1).

Map 1- Location of Saskatoon Source- ESRI-ArcGIS, 2021

With a 2016 census population of 246,376, Saskatoon is the largest city in the province, and the 17th largest Census Metropolitan Area in Canada, and a population of 278,500 as of 2018 while Statistics Canada has estimated the CMA’s population to be 336,614 as of 2020. The populations is increasing steadily but slowly (Figure 1).

The economy of Saskatoon has been associated with potash, oil and agriculture (specifically wheat), resulting in the moniker “POW City” Various grains, livestock, oil and gas, potash, uranium, gold, diamond, coal and their spin off industri es fuel the economy. The distribution of labor force by occupation suggests that business, law and finance and education, law and government have the largest labor force (Figure 2).

The “city of bridges” grew to a population of 246,000 in 2016. (Statistics Canada, 2017). Saskatoon is similar to other urban centers in Canada. Construction, retail trade, education, health care and accommodation and food services make up nearly 50% of the City’ labour force industry. (Statistics Canada, 2017) The median household income in 2015 is $79,000. (Statistics Canada, 2017).

Figure 1- Population change in Saskatoon Source- Statscan (2017)

Figure 2- Labor Force by Occupation Source-StatsCan (2017)

The climate (precipitation, temperature and snowfall) is depicted below.

The rainfall (Figure 3) varies from 0.1 (Feb) to 67.1 (July) and is concentrated. In the months of May to September.

Figure 3- Rainfall in Saskatoon (2017) Source- StatsCan (2017)

The temperature variability is high changing from -42.8 (Feb) to 34.5 (June) (Figure 4).

The temperature variability is high changing from -42.8 (Feb) to 34.5 (June) (Figure 4).

The snowfall (Figure 5) varies between 13 cm to 0.7 cm in September falling almost all months of the year.

Figure 5- Snowfall in Saskatoon (2017) Source- StatsCan (2017)

The entire swale complex is a prehistoric drainage canal connected to the South Saskatchewan River Valley (see Picture 1). Because of its location, in the river valley and within Saskatoon’s city limits, a unique framework on environmental protection governs development in the Swale.

Picture 1- Jurisdiction Map of Greater Swale Source- (Stantec, 2012)

The Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) is a board governed, non-profit organization and is responsible for protecting the Swale. Created in 1979 by an Act of the Government of Saskatchewan, Meewasin Valley Authority Act, is dedicated to conserving the cultural and natural resources of the South Saskatchewan River Valley. This is by means of three participating parties (City of Saskatoon, Government of Saskatchewan, and University of Saskatchewan) who manage the Meewasin Valley in the South Saskatchewan River Basin.The Meewasin valley authority thathas developed guidelines (Northeast Swale Development Guidelines, Stantec, 2012) that the City of Saskatoon implements into its neighbourhood plans. For some, this balance of development and protection is an indication that the Swale will be protected, but others make the case that the current legislation is not enough to protect the Swale in the long-term. Picture 1- Jurisdiction Map of Greater Swale Source- (Stantec, 2012) After completing a qualitative analysis of interview data, it is evident that the balance between development and protection is a moving target. Although the agencies developing the Swale are becoming more environmentally conscious, there is concern that the policies in place today will not protect the Swale in the long-term. The current regime is vulnerable to changes in the political will of the day and can be impacted negatively by budget constraints (R3, Personal Interview). Also, city planners are planning neighbourhoods decades before they are built. This appears to cause problems for advocacy groups who are forced to settle for mitigation instead of protection. In this case, different organizations held different frames of view and goals for protecting the Swale, which created some level of conflict and frustration. But new techniques of measuring the value of natural assets may help broker a more harmonized view of protection in the future.

Basic Background

Saskatoon’s Northeast Swale is a geological feature of Saskatchewan’s prairie landscape. The Swale is a 26 km long depression created by glacial forces and is a natural drainage canal for the river valley . (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2015). The Swale is a series of wetlands and grasslands, 44% (138 ha) and 39% (122 ha) respectively, (Read S. , 2019, p. iii) and is of ecological importance as a habitat and reservoir for prairie species. (Stantec, 2012). It is estimated that only 20% of natural grassland remains in the Province (Bailey, McCartney, & Schellenberg, 2010, p. iv)

The Swale is an important hydrological feature in the region as well. The Swale’s wetlands are both seasonal and permanent. (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2013). Like other wetlands, the Swale stores and purifies water runoff before it eventually flows into the South Saskatchewan river. (R3, Personal Interview, 2020).

As Meewasin’s Resource Management Plan states: Wetland plants also work as a natural filter, removing unwanted substances before entering into the groundwater. Also, the storage of water at a higher elevation in the landscape reduces overland runoff into the river or other large bodies of water, keeping it within the local hydrological cycle and increasing precipitation as well as mitigating the potential for floods. (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2013, p. 5)

The hydrological value of the wetlands in the Swale include, natural hazard mitigation, water regulation and water purification and can be valued at over 4 million dollars per year according to a natural capital asset valuation. (Read S. , 2019, p. 70)

The swale was designated as unserviceable by the city of Saskatoon because the Swale is less than 6M above the Forestry Farm Aquifer, which also feeds part of the wetlands in the Swale. (Stantec, 2012) It is generally accepted that the southeastern portion of the Swale is located within Saskatoon’s city limits, and is divided into the Small Swale, the and the Northeast Swale.

The Greater Swale area extends north east from the City and crosses into the RM of Corman Park and Aberdeen. The North eastern section of the Greater Swale is privately owned and used for grazing cattle and other agricultural production (R3, Personal Interview, 2020).

It is important to note the Swale’s nomenclature. What is designated as the Northeast Swale, is a well-defined area of swale that falls within Saskatoon’s city limits (See Picture 1). The City of Saskatoon holds the land title to this portion; however, it is managed by the MVA. The Small Swale is also within the city limits; however, it is not managed by Meewasin. The Greater Swale refers to the geological feature of the swale complex that extends past the city limits. These designations become important as we explore the idea of governance. Each part of the swale has a different governance structure and legal protection (Table 1).

Table 1: Governance Structure of the Swale Source- Author

Surrounding the Northeast Swale, the City of Saskatoon is Saskatchewan’s most populated urban center. New neighbourhoods are planned to accommodate Saskatoon’s growth. University Heights is the sector that borders the Swale and includes several new neighbourhoods. Aspen Ridge, for example, is one of Saskatoon’s newest neighbourhoods and boarders the south east boundary of the Swale. The City has also approved the sector plan for the University Heights Three (UH3) neighbourhood. The neighbourhood is approved for development and borders the north eastern portion of the Swale (see Picture 2). The Province is also developing a highway (perimeter highway or the Saskatoon Freeway) that will cross the Swale at the north-eastern boundary of the city limits.

Picture 2- Meewasin Northeast Swale master Plan Source- (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2015)

The Swale area has a naturally high-water table (10 meters above surface) and is rocky. Although it borders the City of Saskatoon, the disadvantageous landscape is deemed undevelopable (Stantec, 2012). The new developments around the Swale, however, have highlighted the importance of the Swale as an ecological resource. The classic clash of urban growth and environmental protection is obvious. Advocates, planners, academics and decision-makers have been walking a tightrope, creating a unique and highly visible governance framework around developing and protecting the Swale. Major stakeholders include the City of Saskatoon, the Province of Saskatchewan through the Ministry of Highways, the MVA and public advocacy groups, especially the Northeast Swale Watchers.

Stakeholders and Governance Arrangements

The City of Saskatoon recognized the natural importance of the Northeast Swale as early as 1992 in its An Inventory of Natural Areas Remaining in the Vicinity of Saskatoon report. (City of Saskatoon, 2020) . In 2002, the City and Meewasin created guidelines to regulate future development around the Swale. These guidelines were updated in 2012 and influenced the University Heights Sector Plan, the Aspen Ridge Neighbourhood Concept Plan and the UH3 Sector plan. The City also created an ad hoc working group (the Northeast Swale Working Group -NSWG) as a point of contact for discussion about protecting the Swale. (City of Saskatoon, 2020). The NSWG is inter-agency working group that was established to assess, prioritize, and direct discussions regarding issues that have been raised relating to the Northeast Swale (Swale). reports to the city.

MVA is a quasi-governmental non-profit organization. It was created by provincial statute in 1979 and acts as a land trust for its members (although it also holds title to lands on its own accord). Meewasin is governed by a board of directors and has the mandate for the development, conservation and education around the South Saskatchewan River Valley. (R3, Personal Interview, 2020). Meewasin manages land for the City of Saskatoon, the Province, as well as the University of Saskatchewan and the 12-member board reflects the land holdings. The City, the University and the Province each hold four seats at the board table. (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2020). Meewasin is instrumental in the development of guidelines that govern the development around the Swale and must approve development thought the Swale within its jurisdiction.

Although somewhat peripheral to the Northeast Swale, the Ministry of Highways is playing an important role the urbanization of the Swale. The Ministry of Highways is the Province of Saskatchewan’s ministry responsible for transportation and has the mandate to create an integrated transportation system.

The Ministry of Highways is creating a Functional Plan to build a highway through the Swale. The exact crossing has not yet been decided but it will cross the Swale at some point. (Saskatchewan Ministry of Highways, 2020) The Ministry is balancing the transportation needs of the growing City and Province, as well as, looking into building options that minimise the negative impacts of a highway to the Swale. (R2, Personal Interview, 2020)

Finally, the Northeast Swale Watchers is a citizen’s advocacy group that formed to protect the Swale. The Swale Watchers formed in 2011, although members were actively advocating for Swale protection before that. (R4, Personal Interview, 2020). The Swale Watchers have been asked by both the City of Saskatoon and the Province to sit on working groups regarding the Swale. The Swale Watchers are a privately funded volunteer organization.


To protect the Swale, the MVA established a set of development guidelines, Northeast Swale Development Guidelines (2012). Among other things, these guidelines have to do with creating natural barriers between the Swale and urban development. (Stantec, 2012). The barriers or zones separate the natural Swale area from the urban area and are designed to have several zones: transition zone, trail zone, and ecological buffer zones (Picture 3). These zones are designed to manage urban runoff, exotic species introduction and other pollutants. (Stantec, 2012). Detailed plans are also provided on how roadways though the Swale should be designed, including specific grading and speed limits (Stantec, 2012). Any developer wanting to build through or adjacent to the Swale is required to follow these guidelines.

Picture 3-Buffer Zones Source- (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2015)

Although the Swale is an important hydrological feature of the landscape, the focus of its preservation revolves around the ecology, protecting prairie species and providing a recreational space for residence. (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2015). Meewasin’s Master Plan identifies the ecological importance of the Swale:

These environments provide significant ecological services, and contain over 200 documented plant species, 103 avian species and a variety of mammals within the 300 ha of Swale in Saskatoon alone…. Some of the rare or endangered species in the Swale include plants (Crowfoot Violet, Western Red Lily, Narrow-leaved Water Plantain, Sweet Grass), birds (Sprague’s Pipit, Barn Swallow, Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Grebe, Short-eared Owl, Common Nighthawk) and amphibians (Northern Leopard Frog). Maintaining biodiversity is integral to the health, success and future of this ecosystem (Meewasin Valley Authority, 2015, p. 14).

The idea of protecting the Swale is longstanding. In, 1992, a City report, An Inventory of Natural Areas Remaining in the Vicinity of Saskatoon, acknowledged the Swale as unique natural area requiring protection. (Weichel, 1992) In 2002, the first development guidelines were created that would govern how neighbourhoods could be built around the Swale. In 2013, the University Heights Sector Plan was approved and incorporated Meewasin’s 2012 Development Guidelines. The guidelines were put together by Stantec Consulting Ltd. but had input from Northeast Swale Steering Committee and the Technical Advisory Committee. The City plans are created by the long-term planning department of the City of Saskatoon and are approved by City Council. The time line of various events is given below (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Time line events Source: Author

The Research Process

The Northeast Swale case was identified by contacts at the Water security Agency (WSA) as an important case to examine BMPs. The WSA also provided a list of preliminary contacts that were knowledgeable about the Swale. These contacts became the starting point for research. The aforementioned, were contacted via email and phone and a literature review was conducted through which other stakeholders and parties knowledgeable about the Northeast Swale were identified. Stakeholders that could fill in gaps or that were involved in the active management of the Swale were contacted. Before official interviews, researchers had informal conversations with potential respondents to request documentation and to assess the willingness to interview and the specific knowledge of potential respondents.

From September to November 2020, stakeholders were contacted via phone and email and four official interviews were conducted via video conferencing. Respondents include representatives from the City of Saskatoon, Ministry of Highways, Meewasin Valley Authority, and Northeast Swale Watchers advocacy group (Table 2).

Table 2: Respondents Source: Author

Upon investigating the Northeast Swale case, it became clear that it is not a water management case. Although the greater theme of our research is investigating best water management practices, this case focusses more broadly on environmental protection. Although environmental protection is highlighted in this case, our assumption is that process and practice around environmental protection also apply to water management. The case of the swale examines the balance of urban development and ecological protection. This balance can also apply to hydrological protection.


Listening to the Lorax

From the onset, this case appeared to be the struggle between urbanization and environmental protection. This story is all too familiar for environmentalists. Powerful decision-makers are motivated by greed and abuse the natural environment in the name of development and progress. In 1971, Dr. Seuss wrote the same story. In his tale, the Lorax speaks for the trees that are being hacked down. Eventually the forest is destroyed. (Dr. Seuss, 1971). The truth about the Swale is, fortunately, much more nuanced. In the case of the Swale, the question is not, “should the Swale be protected?”. Everyone seems to agree that it should be. The question is now, “how should it be protected?”. The City and the Province both have a growing mandate to protect natural resources. The development of more environmentally conscious policies is a change of the status quo and is evidence of both double and single loop learning.

The City of Saskatoon’s website has an entire tab of Environmental Initiatives. The page includes a Climate Action Plan, Low-emissions: Mitigation Strategy and a Green Strategy. (City of Saskatoon, 2020). The City is taking a progressive approach towards environmental protection. The Green Strategy is establishing baseline data and guiding principles to create more environmentally conscious urban spaces. (City of Saskatoon, 2018). Regarding the Northeast Swale more specifically, the City has taken many steps to mitigate the effects of urbanization on the Swale. The steps the City has taken are not simply nominal or political. Signing a Memorandum of Understanding MOU with the University of Saskatchewan to increase the research and understanding of the Swale will have long term positive impacts for Swale protection.

Interview data also suggest that views towards development and the environment are becoming more progressive and adaptive. Talking about developing in the Swale, R1 responded, “it’s not really a developable area. It’s very rocky. It’s very low. It’s very wet. … at one point in history, somebody might have said, oh, we just can fill it in with a bunch of soil and put houses on it. But we’ve learned our lesson on that. Our cities have learned our lesson”. (R1, Personal Interview, 2020). This interviewee suggests that city has learned from the past and is making changes.

Similarly, the Ministry of Highways is becoming more progressive in its approach to protecting the environment. When asked if the Ministry has a specific mandate to protect the environment the R2 said:

…the goal we have is to improve safety and environmental sustainability.… I guess it’s given that when we’re doing a project that we are going to do what we can to protect the environment.… I don’t need to necessarily state it. I mean, [the] Ministry of Environment, their mandate is to protect the environment. Our mandate is to make sure whatever we do is in an environmentally sustainable way. (R2, Personal Interview, 2020)

When asked about how the Ministry has changed regarding environmental protection the R2 continued:

So, the environmental awareness has changed a lot. A lot of it is regulation. A lot of it is additions to the environmental protected species lists. And so those things all come into account. … So, even building a bridge in the old days, you could go, and you could build a bridge and do a rehab on it…. Now, [if a] barn swallow nests on a bridge and we’ve got to wait until the barn swallow nests leave before we can go in and do any work. 30 years ago, that wasn’t an issue…. Things have changed significantly. And we want to be good stewards of the environment. So, we make sure we follow those rules. But we’re trying to be environmental leaders. We haven’t always. I think we’re trying to get there. We’ve now created an environment branch in the ministry and their job is to help promote environmental protection- environmental sustainability in the Ministry. (R2, Personal Interview, 2020)

The idea that the Ministry of Highways wants to be an environmental leader might make some long-toothed environmentalists roll their eyes. But the idea that Ministry is creating an environment branch is eco-positive and should be recognized as such. The overall tone of the interviews with both the City representatives and the representatives from Highways was to protect the environment and mitigate environmental damage. To go back to Dr. Seuss and his warning, it appears as though the traditional legislative powers, the City and the Province, are listening to the Lorax.

Different Frames for Protection

The conflict between development and conservation in the case of the Swale is not a black and white issue. Every organization interviewed about the swale has a mandate to protect the Swale and to mitigate the negative effects of urban development. A more precise understanding of what protection means is needed. The right level of development and the right level of protection are very subjective values. Even within an organization there can be differences in frame. R3 elaborated on this idea:

…And that’s the one challenge that we have internally. In Meewasin you know, we have that mandate of development, but we also have that mandate of conservation. And, you know, that knife edge, which way does it lean? Right? And I know some would argue that it leans too far on the development side, whereas some people actually would argue that it leans too far on the conservation side. So, if you talk to developers, they say we’re two conservation focused. If you talk to the conservation minded people, they say we’re too development focused. (R3, Personal Interview, 2020)

If, even within Meewasin, the line between conservation and development is elusive, there is no doubt then that there are vastly different views on the appropriate level of protection for the Swale from different organizations.

As an example of the difference in frames, the Northeast Swale Watchers do not think that the protection mandates of the City and especially the Province are strong enough. R4 held concerns that the language around environmental protection was not actually creating real protection for the Swale but was simply satisfying bureaucratic requirements:

So, what happens is that ...they.... want to be judged by what they’re trying to do. Rather than by their actions…. So, I would say that the city of Saskatoon, in terms of protecting the Swale, is way further ahead than it would have been before the Swale Watchers started going after them. Yes,