Landform designer


Landform design team by Derrill Shuttleworth


In the 1980s and 1990s, it was starting to be recognized that mine reclamation was more than regrading, placing soil, and revegetating, that integrated design was required to reliably meet a mine’s corporate objectives and regulatory requirements. Closure planning started in the 1990s and landform design was formalized in the 2000s. Designing at the watershed scale gained popularity during this time. Several mines created large instrumented watersheds for reclamation research on various substrates over the past 15 years, as discussed below. Syncrude and the University of Alberta co-sponsored an International Instrumented Watershed Symposium (IIWS) in 2004 in Edmonton that captured the state of practice and the art in both natural and constructed instrumented watersheds.

Landform design for mine reclamation involves settling clear landscape performance goals, designing and constructing mining landforms (like overburden dumps, tailings areas, pits), with a multidisciplinary team, typically working over many decades.

Most landforms are reclaimed to support terrestrial, wetland, or lake ecosystems. Some are reclaimed to recreational or industrial uses. At the other end of the scale, a few are so tough to reclaim, they are only reclaimed to be stable and to have low environmental impact. All are valid land uses, usually selected by the mine operator with input from stakeholders and regulators.


Landform design at Suncor Wapisiw Lookout (Formerly Pond 1)

Starting with his work at Syncrude on the SW 30 Dump Instrumented Watershed (Syncrude 2004) and his work at BGC Engineering, Gord and his team have worked with numerous small and large interdisciplinary teams developing, teaching, and practicing watershed reclamation at commercial scales for almost 20 years:

  • Development of a formal basis of landform / watershed design in Gord’s 2002 PhD thesis at the University of Alberta
  • Investigation, design, construction, reclamation, and monitoring of seven instrumented watersheds for reclamation research (totaling 600 hectares) including several on soft tailings
  • Investigation, design, construction, and reclamation of six commercial-scale watershed reclamation projects (totaling 650 hectares)
  • Investigation, design, and ongoing construction of five other large scale tailings watersheds (totaling 2,000 hectares)
  • Closure planning using watershed reclamation approaches for four sites (totaling 40,000 hectares)
  • Watershed research and development for Teck Coal at a variety of field scales in the Rockies
  • Teaching a dozen landform design workshops to classes of 3 to 40 students and professionals in Canada, the US, and Australia
  • Development of design manuals and other technology transfer products to get the research learnings into the hands of practitioners to incorporate learnings into design as soon as practical
How big is one hectare? Land disturbance and reclamation is typically measured in hectares. One hectare (ha) is 10,000m2. One hundred hectares is a square kilometer. It is perhaps easiest to visualize a hectare as a 100m x 100m area, or consider that one hectare is the same size as 1.23 CFL football fields (or 1.67 if one does not include the end zones). One hectare is 2.47 acres.



Wetland book

Designing littoral zone for end pit lakes



Selected references

Abbott, R.M., and McKenna, G.T. 2012. Sustainable mining now: turning ideas and ideals into reality. In Mine Closure 2012. Australian Centre for Geomechanics, Brisbane, pp. 771-781.

BGC Engineering Inc., 2010. Review of Reclamation Options for Oil Sands Tailings Substrates. OSRIN Report No. TR-2. University of Alberta. 1v.

CEMA-RWG Landscape Design Subgroup 2004. Landscape design checklist, Cumulative Effects Management Association, Reclamation Working Group, Fort McMurray.

Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA) 2007. Guideline for wetland establishment on reclaimed oil sands leases (2nd edition). Cumulative Environmental Management Association (CEMA),, Fort McMurray, AB.

Elshorbagy, A., Jutla, A., Barbour, L., and Kells, J. 2005. System dynamics approach to assess the sustainability of reclamation of disturbed watersheds. Canadian Journal of Civil Engineering, 32(1): 144-158.

Jakubick, A.T., McKenna, G.T., and Robertson, A.M. Stabilisation of tailings deposits: international experience. In Sudbury ’03: Mining and the Environment, Sudbury2003.

Kelln, C.J., Barbour, S.L., Purdy, B., and Qualizza, C. 2009. A multi-disciplinary approach to reclamation research in the oil sands region of Canada, In Appropriate Technologies for Environmental Protection in the Developing World: Selected Papers from ERTEP 2007, July 17–19 2007, Ghana, Africa Edited by E.K. Yanful, Springer. pp. 205-215.

O’Kane, M., Wilson, G.W., and Barbour, S.L. 1998. Instrumentation and monitoring of an engineered soil cover system for mine waste rock. Canadian Geotechnical Journal 35(5): 828-846.

Price, A.C., Mendoza, C.A., 2004. How big is your man-made aquifer? Groundwater flow and salt transport in a sand tailings storage facility, Fort McMurray, Alberta. Abstracts with Programs – Geological Society of America, 36(5): 451.

Price, A.C.R. 2005. Evaluation of groundwater flow and salt transport within an undrained tailings sand dam. Master of Science Master of Science, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta.

McKenna, G.T. 1996. Concepts in lease-closure landscapes. CIM Bulletin, 89(1002): 89-95.

McKenna, G.T. 2002. Sustainable mine reclamation and landscape engineering. PhD thesis, University of Alberta, Edmonton. 660p.

McKenna, G., and Cullen, V. 2008. Landscape design for soft tailings deposit. In Tailings and Mine Waste 08, Vail, Colorado.

McKenna, G. 2009. Techniques for creating mining landforms with natural appearance. In Tailings and Mine Waste ’09 Conference. The University of Alberta Geotechnical Centre, Edmonton., Banff.

McKenna, G., Scordo, E., Shuttleworth, D., Straker, J., Purdy, B., and Buchko, J. 2011. Aesthetics for mine closure. In Mine Closure 2011. Australian Centre for Geomechanics, Perth, Lake Louise, Canada, pp. 603-612.

Pollard, J., McKenna, G.T., Fair, J., Daly C, Wytrykush, C., and Clark, J. 2012. Design aspects of two fen wetlands constructed for reclamation research in the Athabasca oil sands. In Mine Closure 2012. Australian Centre for Geomechanics, Brisbane, pp. 815-829.

Schor, H.J., and Gray, D.H. 1995. Landform grading and slope evolution. Journal of Geotechnical Engineering, 121(10): 729-734.

Schor, H.J., and Gray, D.H. 2007. Landforming : an environmental approach to hillside development, mine reclamation and watershed restoration. John Wiley & Sons, Hoboken, N.J.

Straker, J., Scordo, E., and McKenna, G.T. 2010. Designing Oil Sands Mining Landforms for Natural Appearance and Integration Across Boundaries. Consultant’s report for Alberta Environment. 1v.

Swanson, S., Abbott, R., Funk, W., Kirk, L., McKenna, G., Ohlendorf, H., and Sandy, T. Building stakeholder engagement in sustainable solutions- the strategic advisory panel on selenium management. In Mine Closure 2011: Sixth International Conference on Mine Closure, Lake Louise, Canada. 18-21 September 2011 2011. Australian Centre for Geomechanics, pp. 189-196.

Syncrude Canada Ltd 2004. Discovering nature’s way: Instrumented watersheds for reclamation research. Syncrude Canada Ltd, Fort McMurray. 40p


Links to CEMA Oil Sands Reclamation Guides (that are also useful elsewhere as well….)