The Recreation Lakes Dilemma

[Note: The following was first published as a series of three columns in the January to March 2011 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright (C) 2011 Don H. Meredith

Lower catch limits, draws for special licences, restricted seasons, enforced catch-and-release. These are some of the measures the Alberta government has taken over the years to stem the general decline in the quality and quantity of the fisheries in our more popular recreation lakes (e.g., Lac Ste. Anne, Pigeon Lake, Pine Lake, Sylvan Lake and Wabamun Lake, among others). An ever increasing human population chasing a fixed resource and the reduction in water levels are the reasons often given for the decline, but is restricting the catch enough to turn the decline around? What is the impact of development along the shores of these lakes?

2005 Meredith-icefishtrout

What is the effect of lakeshore development on the quality of fisheries?

Owning a piece of waterfront property is the dream of many who enjoy escaping to one of these lakes to fish, boat, swim or just enjoy an outing with the family. And over the years, as more and more people have benefited from the Alberta economy, many people have taken the plunge, either buying an already developed property or purchasing land and developing it themselves.

Of course, there is only so much lakeshore to go around, and many people have had to settle for a cottage back away from the lakeshore without direct access to the lake. Like the man said, “They’ve stopped making real estate,” and that’s especially the case with lakeshore. Indeed, developers often pressure municipalities to open more land for residential development; but how much lakeshore can be developed before it affects the health of the lake and the reasons people come to these lakes in the first place? We assume our governments are looking after this and associated questions, but are they?

2010-12 Meredith-lakeshorecabins-1

Owning a piece of waterfront property is the dream of many.

If you own lakeshore property, you want to be able to access the water, either to swim, or launch and dock a boat. Not a problem, right? You purchased the lakeshore, so you can do what you want with it. Not exactly. First, just because you purchased lakeshore property does not mean you actually own the land down to the water’s edge. In fact, in most cases you only own down to the high water bank of the lake, or in some cases where the local municipality has a “reserve” along the lakeshore, you might not even own that far. I say “in most cases” because there is a very small minority of properties where ownership was granted to the water’s edge, but these are rare indeed. Second and in any case, no matter who owns the property, the property owner still must obtain authorization from the appropriate authorities to make any alterations to the property, including the lakeshore. The problem often is who are the “appropriate authorities”?

And that is where the dilemma lies. In Alberta several government jurisdictions overlap on our recreation lakes and it is often difficult to understand who has jurisdiction over what.

 Disclaimer: I do not own lakeshore property. I do live near Wabamun Lake and serve on the Wabamun Watershed Management Council representing the Stony Plain Fish and Game Association. Much of the following information was provided by Alberta Environment and I take full responsibility for any errors in its interpretation.

The confusion over who regulates our lakes begins with the host of legislation governing the use of property on and off lakes. On the federal level there is the Navigable Waters Protection Act and the Fisheries Act. These acts cover anything you might want to do in the water, such as create a boat launch or build a dock. If the structure is a possible hazard to navigation or its construction could destroy fish habitat, you will need a permit from the feds. As well, if your development should have a possible impact on migratory birds, the Migratory Birds Convention Act could come into effect. Other legislation that might apply includes the Species at Risk Act, the Canadian Shipping Act (boating regulations) and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.

On the provincial level, there is the Water Act, the Public Lands Act, the Environmental Protection and Enhancement Act, the Municipal Government Act, and the Safety Codes Act (sewage disposal regulations). These acts together cover anything you might want to do in the water, along the shore, in the riparian area (flood zone) and indeed the upland areas of your property or that of your neighbors upland of you. As well, the Surveys Act, the Public Health Act, the Weed Control Act and the Fisheries (Alberta) Amendment Act might apply.

Confused? Well, you’re not alone. Many people who purchase shoreline property are not aware of many of these requirements, and the various governments often don’t go out of their way to inform them. As a result, sometimes the first these people hear about certain regulations is when an enforcement officer appears requesting to see a permit for work in progress or already completed. Is this the proper way to treat citizens or indeed protect our lake resources? I think not.

Of course, it is the responsibility of each citizen to be aware of the law; i.e., “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” However, it is also the responsibility of government to ensure that its citizens have reasonable access to information about what is required of them. As well, enforcing regulations after the fact is not protecting the lake and its watershed. In many cases after a violation is reported, the development is allowed to proceed after a fine is paid and the necessary permits are granted. If the property owner had known of the regulations ahead of time, he or she might not have sought to develop or changed their plans to make the development more environmentally compatible. Lakeshore residents and indeed lake watershed residents need to understand how they can become stewards of the land they hold and not be part of the problem.

Most people know they need a building permit when they seek to construct a house or a cottage; and they know (or soon learn) their local municipality—whether that be a city, town, village or county—is the place to obtain that permit. The permit application process ensures the builder follows local and provincial rules governing where a building should be sited, how far from neighbors, size restrictions, etc. As well, the permitting process ensures the builder is aware of other required permits and building regulations that are covered by federal and provincial legislation (e.g., building codes, electrical, plumbing, sewage).

That’s fine for the construction of buildings and placating the concerns of neighbors, but what about considerations for the health of the lake and the environment? This is where the municipalities draw the line and pass the buck to the provincial and federal governments. And why shouldn’t they? Municipalities have small budgets, don’t have the staff to do environmental assessments, and fundamentally like to see property developed because that means more tax revenue. But do our provincial and federal governments do enough to ensure their laws and regulations are understood by citizens wishing to develop shoreline?

Shorelines and Ecosystems

2006-06 Meredith-ShoreVegetation

Aquatic vegetation near shore provides important  habitat for fish and wildlife.

Why are lakeshore properties and those upland of lakeshores so important? Because the consequences of activities on these lands often end up in the lakes. Lakes are the lower ends of basins where water collects from the surrounding countryside or watershed. The watershed is the land around the lake that collects and drains water to the lake; and along the way, the water picks up a variety of nutrients and contaminants, including bacteria, heavy metals and other chemicals. If the lake is not regularly flushed (as where a river enters and exits a lake), these materials accumulate and affect the functioning of the lake ecosystem which in turn determines the quality of the water and the lake itself. Indeed, the water levels in some of our most popular recreation lakes have been so low in recent years that water seldom drains from the lakes through their natural outflow streams.

Fish Habitat
Fish are important components of any lake ecosystem, and healthy populations of game fish contribute to the recreation and aesthetic value of the lake experience. These populations are dependent upon adequate habitat to provide food, shelter and suitable areas for spawning. Shallow water near lakeshores provides much of this necessary habitat. When a landowner decides he or she would like a sandy beach for swimming or a boat dock, much critical vegetation that provides that habitat is removed. Now, it is easy for a landowner to argue that developing this small portion of the lakeshore should have little overall effect on fish and the rest of the lake ecosystem. However, multiply that attitude by the many other landowners on the water and the result is considerable habitat loss. The bottom line is that habitat loss translates to lower numbers of fish. Combine that with more anglers and other recreationists coming to these lakes, more nutrients and contaminants entering the lake, and you get reduced catch-limits, catch-and-release-only fishing, and a general decline in the quality of the fishing experience.

Nutrient Loading
Lakes evolve over time, and indeed go through a series of succession stages that ultimately end in the death of the lake (where it turns into a shallow wetland on its way to dry land). Most of the recreation lakes in the prairies were formed when the glaciers retreated at the end of the last ice age (some 10,000 years ago). From the beginning, sediments washed into these basins from the surrounding landscapes and nutrients entered from the soils. Over time, the accumulation of these organic and inorganic compounds slowly changed the chemistry of the lakes. The more nutrients in a lake, the more productive it becomes in terms of plant growth, especially algae. Fish thrive in earlier succession stages where there is a wide variety of aquatic life. As the nutrients increase, more and more algae blooms in the summer, restricting light penetration, and reducing the habitat and oxygen for many aquatic species. The diversity of life in the lake is reduced including many food species for game fish.

Most of our popular recreation lakes (those in central Alberta close to our major centres) are relatively shallow (less than 10 metres in depth), warm, alkaline and very productive (eutrophic). Ongoing academic studies of the productivity of Isle, St. Anne, Pine, Pigeon, Nakamun and Wabamun lakes have shown that during the 1950s through the 1970s the rate of nutrient and contaminant loading increased in these lakes. These increases were most likely the result of increasing land development (agricultural, residential, industrial) in the surrounding watersheds. As development slowed and more environmentally aware practices were employed in the 1980s and 1990s, the rate of loading decreased but did not stop.

2009-08 Meredith-ShorelineDevelopments-1

The development of shorelines reduces fish habitat.

Natural vegetation on uplands reduces erosion and the amount of nutrients entering a water body. Nutrients still enter lakes but at a low rate. If these soils are disturbed during cultivation or other developments, more nutrients enter the surface water heading to a lake. Also, the placement of sewage systems, such as septic tanks and fields can increase nutrient loading as well as bacteria in lakes. In recent years, many municipalities have been addressing some of these issues. For example, lakeshore owners on many lakes are encouraged not to use septic fields—where waste water is leached into soil, but to use holding tanks that are periodically pumped out and the waste hauled to secure processing sites.

Likewise, fertilizer use can increase nutrient flow. One of the biggest culprits in increasing the vegetative productivity in a lake is phosphorous, a key element in fertilizers and until recently laundry and dishwasher detergents. Phosphorous definitely helps plant growth, whether the plants be crops or algae in a lake. To keep a lake healthy, phosphorous use needs to be restricted. As well, natural vegetation, such as trees and shrubs in the uplands and along the shore of a lake, plays a role in intercepting phosphorous and other nutrients and incorporating those nutrients in their growth and not that of algae in the lake.

Although nutrient loading cannot be stopped completely (surface waters will always carry some nutrients to the lake), it can be slowed if landowners are aware of the problem and take measures to do their part as stewards of the lakes. As I mentioned last month, the problem is getting that information to the landowners before they become part of the problem.

Present Status
At a recent workshop for residents and users of nine of our most popular lakes (Gull, Isle, La Nonne, Nakamun, Pigeon, Pine, Ste Anne, Sylvan and Wabamun), Alberta Environment provided information about the current status of these lakes. The following table is a very brief summary:


Lake Water Level Algae
Gull fluctuates naturally, supplemented by Blindman River diversion moderate growth, stable concentrations
Isle relatively stable high growth but stable, Sturgeon River a source of nutrients
La Nonne sharp decline in last decade very high growth, significant nutrient contribution from tributaries
Nakamun sharp decline since 1998 very high growth, concentrations highly variable
Pigeon slow decline high growth, concentrations increasing
Pine stable high to very high growth, concentrations increasing, ongoing project to remove bottom water containing nutrients
Ste. Anne general decline very high growth, large nutrient contributions from Lake Isle and Sturgeon River
Sylvan stable to increasing, ground water plays a role moderate growth, stable concentrations
Wabamun variable high growth, with little change in concentrations over time

As you can see, algae is a problem at most of these lakes. Although, it is difficult to reverse the decline in water quality, it is not so difficult to slow that decline and indeed stabilize current conditions. However, that requires the cooperation of all users, residents and governments. Next month, I will discuss what is being done now and what should be done to slow the decline in water quality.


Shoreline residents of our lakes share a large responsibility for helping keep these lakes healthy. However, the legislation governing how shorelines or water bodies generally are to be protected is confusing. Figure 1 illustrates just some of the legislation that applies. As I mentioned in my first column in this series, governments don’t go out of their way to make such residents aware of all the regulations that apply, unless it’s after a violation has occurred.

1991 ASRD-Legislation-Diagram

Figure 1: 1991 graphic courtesy of Alberta Sustainable Resource Management

Now, we can point fingers at governments, at residents and indeed at ourselves for not taking the necessary action. However it is time for finger pointing to stop and someone to take the initiative and do something to truly protect these lakes we love to visit and enjoy.

Lake residents and users have not been idle. Many have formed local organizations to focus efforts and concerns on the problems at their particular lakes. Current examples include the Gull Lake Quality Management Society, Lac La Nonne Watershed Stewardship Society, Pigeon Lake Watershed Association, Pine Lake Restoration Society, Sylvan Lake Watershed Stewardship Society and the Wabamun Watershed Management Council. They have independently done much research and lobbied governments to get some action. Alberta Environment has been involved with many of them, helping out where they can, especially with understanding lake biology and the legislation that applies to lakes, lake shores and their respective watersheds.

Indeed, it was Alberta Environment that initiated the formation of the Wabamun Watershed Management Council (WWMC) as a result of a report Dr. David Schindler and a select committee wrote concerning the health of Wabamun Lake in 2004. That report stated “that a permanent citizens panel, whose objective it is to protect the health of Wabamun Lake, needs to be established and maintained. This panel must have members who are selected by, and representative of, the community of Wabamun Lake users.” The problem at Wabamun Lake was not a lack of concerned citizens, but that such citizens were organized into several small organizations (environmental, recreational, municipal) that separately lobbied both government and industry with their own specific interests. No one was looking at the lake as a whole, taking into consideration all interests.

There had been several attempts in the past to bring all the interests together. The most notable was the “Lake Wabamun Management Plan” published in 1985 by a Lake Wabamun Management Committee, made up of representatives from the various municipalities around the lake (Wabamun village, summer villages and Parkland County). The plan was very comprehensive, identified many of the problems that still exist today, and indeed proposed solutions. However, few of those solutions were enacted. In other words, the plan was put on the shelves of the various municipalities and quickly forgotten. Development proceeded as before, more and more people visited the lake each year and the quality of the lake experience declined. As a result, more people complained to government, the Schindler report was commissioned, the WWMC formed and now the council is poised to write yet another management plan. But the obvious question is whether it is worth going through the considerable effort and expense to create such a plan if it is to be ignored like the ones before?

2008-09 Meredith-NaturalShoreline

Shoreline can be developed to include natural habitat.

That’s not to say the WWMC has not been taking action since its formation in 2006. It published and distributed information to residents and users of the lake on how to reduce the nutrients that drain into the lake. In conjunction with the Federation of Alberta Naturalists, the council sponsored voluntary home site consultations for lakeshore residents to assist them in becoming better stewards of their lakeshore and help keep the lake healthy. It also organized a shoreline naturalization workshop for lakeshore residents who wish to return at least a portion of their lakeshore to healthy natural habitat. All of these programs have been well received.

Awareness and local action are one thing, but again, this is not looking at the lake as a whole. While some stakeholders take steps to improve conditions others continue to flaunt the law either through ignorance or bullheadedness. Only a comprehensive, government approved and enacted watershed management plan will ensure a healthy lake for the future.

I use Wabamun as an example because I’m most familiar with what goes on there. However, in consultation with some of the local groups at other popular recreation lakes, the WWMC noted that many problems were similar (e.g., low water levels, increasing algae, increasing lakeside development, etc.) and what works for one lake might indeed work for another. As a result, Alberta Environment convened two workshops last year for members of these various organizations, as well as municipal governments, to come together and learn from one another. In the first workshop, it became apparent that we were all fighting very similar battles and that perhaps we should be aligning forces and coordinating some activities for the good of all lakes. It also became apparent that some solutions were difficult because, as I outlined in the first column in this series, no one level of government takes responsibility for a lake as a whole. As a result, short-term gain often trumps consideration for long-term sustainability.

If we hope to keep enjoying these recreational lakes, as either anglers, boaters, lakeshore residents or other stakeholders, the Alberta government needs to step up and show some leadership. What are the cumulative effects of increasing lakeshore, industrial and agriculture development in the watersheds of our lakes? Who should have the overriding authority and responsibility for ensuring that lake health is sustained or indeed improved?

2009-08 Meredith-ShorelineNatWrkshp

WWMC Shoreline Naturalization Workshop

Those questions are not easily answered by a government that likes to stay out of the business of Albertans and especially municipal governments. But step in it must if we are to keep our lakes healthy. Is there room for healthy recreation lakes in our politicians’ visions of Alberta?

In the mean time several organizations are continuing to work for the health of lakes and many offer information and programs that do make a difference. These include:

  • the Federation of Alberta Naturalists and their Living by Water program which encourages lakeshore owners to respect shoreline habitats for fish and wildlife.
  • The Association of Summer Villages of Alberta which has published a very popular Lake Stewardship Reference Guide that is available from their web site.
  • specific lake information from the various stewardship groups I listed earlier. Check out their web sites.

Comments are always welcome (below).

Interested in reading an award-winning outdoor adventure novel? Check out  The Search for Grizzly One and Dog Runner.

About Don Meredith

I am a writer and biologist living in Alberta, Canada. I wrote a monthly column for the Alberta Outdoorsmen magazine, and have published articles for several other magazines.
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2 Responses to The Recreation Lakes Dilemma

  1. Paul says:

    Don, do you feel a further contributing factor to issues regarding these so called “recreational” lakes is the SRD’s obsessive promotion of walleye, even at the expense of other species, thereby upsetting the natural biodiversity? It started with Lesser Slave and is continuing to spread and has done nothing to benefit the waters or the sport fishery. I don’t know your feelings but I have never truly considered walleye a great sport fish, but more something that tastes delicious if properly prepared.

    • Don Meredith says:

      Paul, Walleye are a very popular fish and have been heavily over-fished over the years. When anglers aren’t catching enough of them, they complain. That’s why you’re seeing so much attention paid to them. I don’t believe SRD is promoting them so much as giving them special attention to ensure their viability. With regard to biodiversity in our waters, unfortunately budget cuts have forced F&W to become much more reactive than proactive.

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