The Health of a Lake

[Note: The following was first published in the September 2013 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2013 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

How do you measure the health of a lake? by the clarity of the water? the number of fish you can catch? whether you can keep fish? the number of waterfowl and other wildlife that live there? whether you can swim in the water? drink the water?

Wabamun Lake

Wabamun Lake is one of the most popular recreation lakes in Alberta.

That was one of the questions the Wabamun Watershed Management Council (WWMC) sought to answer in its Wabamun Lake, State of the Watershed Report, launched on August 25 at Seba Beach on Wabamun Lake. As some readers of this column know, I have served on the WWMC in various capacities since its inception in 2006 when concerned stakeholders got together with Alberta Environment to form the council. Many believe the council was formed as a result of the infamous CN train derailment in 2005 when 560,000 litres of bunker fuel oil entered the lake. However, the idea for a formal group of stakeholders to oversee the health of the lake was originally recommended by Dr. David Schindler in his 2004 report about Wabamun Lake (available at The council was in its formative phase when the derailment occurred.

The State of the Watershed Report is a step along the way to a watershed management plan that, if followed, would ensure the lake’s health and make sure its value as a recreational and environmental resource is maintained and even improved. Before you can write a management plan you have to understand what you are managing, and that is what the State of the Watershed Report seeks to do: describe the current environmental health of the lake and its watershed.

Some History

Wabamun Lake

Wabamun Lake is the most studied in the province.

This is not the first time a watershed state report or even a management plan was created for Wabamun Lake. Indeed, Wabamun is one of the most studied lakes in the province, the bulk of those studies occurring in the 1970s when the public expressed concerns about the effects of the heated water the Wabamun TransAlta power plant was discharging into the lake (that plant was decommissioned in 2010). Back in 1980, a Lake Wabamun Watershed Advisory Council was formed, which included representation from at least six departments of the provincial government, the federal government, several summer village and cottage owners associations, sailing clubs, the RCMP, TransAlta Utilities, local environmental groups and the Alberta Fish and Game Association. The mandate of that council was to report back to the provincial government about “future land and water management practices to help maintain or improve water quality.” This the council did in 1983, and the report included recommendations to address the issues identified. Taking the bull by the horns, the now-defunct Yellowhead Regional Planning Commission in conjunction with local municipalities hired a pair of consulting firms to create a Lake Wabamun Management Plan. This plan was published in 1984 and was very comprehensive, listing many issues and solutions. Copies of the plan were sent to all levels of government around the lake, and it was dutifully filed and forgotten about. Why? Because of the age old problem in this province where no one department or indeed government is responsible for lake management. The result is, on any particular lake issue, the buck is passed from one jurisdiction to another and nothing significant gets done.

So, in Wabamun Lake’s case, lakeshore development continued, fish populations dropped and commercial fishing was discontinued. More alarms went off among stakeholders. The provincial government, in its wisdom, contracted Dr. Schindler to do yet another report on the health of the lake (a compilation of all the previous studies). The WWMC was formed and now we are addressing the same issues but with more urgency, as highlighted by the CN train derailment, the slow recovery of some fish populations, and the increasing incidence of cyanobacteria (blue-green “algae”) blooms on other recreation lakes in central Alberta.

Current Health

The WWMC hired Aquality Environmental Consultants Ltd. in 2012 to write the State of the Watershed Report, especially in relation to what has happened since the Schindler report. Aquality measured several environmental indicators, including land use, water quality and quantity, and biological communities. To compare these various indicators and come up with a measure of health for the entire lake, Aquality assigned rating classifications of good, fair and poor.

Land Use—The watershed was rated as “fair’ with regard to the number of urban, rural, recreational, agricultural and industrial developments, as these developments cover 50% of the watershed land base. Manure production from agricultural operations was rated as “poor” (1583 kilograms/hectare). Oil and gas activity was rated as “good” (0.003 wells/hectare). Linear developments, such as roads, pipelines and utility corridors, were rated as “poor” (17.6 km or 4.7% of the watershed). Unfortunately, there were insufficient data available for evaluating wetland loss and riparian health—key factors in the maintenance of lake water quality.

Water Quality—The lake fared better in terms of water quality. It was rated “good” for “nutrients and routine parameters” (phosphorous concentration = 0.03 milligrams/litre; nitrogen = 0.09 milligrams/litre). Likewise in terms of fecal coliform bacteria in the water, the concentrations were below health guidelines more than 90% of the time (over the last three years) for a rating of “good”. As well, the concentrations of metals in the open water were below guidelines and rated as “good”. There were insufficient data available to evaluate pesticides and parasites in the water.

Water Quantity—Fluctuations in lake level have been an ongoing concern with cottage owners and residents around the lake. Currently the lake level is higher than normal and received a rating of “fair”.

Biological Community—Aquality reported that 37% of the watershed is under natural land cover types for a rating of “fair”. The land where the natural cover has been removed contributes significantly higher levels of nutrients to the lake, particularly in years of high precipitation and runoff.

lakeshore development

Although the lake is in a relatively healthy state, uncontrolled development along its lakeshore threatens that health.

Overall, the report rated the health of the watershed and lake as “fair”. The lake is in relatively healthy shape, despite the oil spill, especially when compared to other lakes in central Alberta where cyanobacterial (blue-green “algal”) blooms and fish kills are becoming more common. However, improvements must be made to how land use issues are managed such that the water quality can be maintained or even improved. Although nutrient levels in the water are “good” that could change quickly. Much of the nutrients and metals that enter the water come from sediments on the lake bottom, and all of those are deposited from runoff from the watershed.

The report is very comprehensive and covers a lot more than I can comment on here (report downloadable from The next step for the WWMC is to act on the recommendations in the report and produce another watershed management plan. But will that plan be acted upon to preserve the values people come to the lake to enjoy? The social and political situation has changed with regard to many recreational lakes across the province. People are not liking what they are seeing in terms of water and fishing quality. Several watershed management groups are asking the various governments to step up and take responsibility and some governments are at least talking about responding. So, there is hope that action will take place.

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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.
This entry was posted in Alberta Outdoorsmen, Conservation, Environment and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Health of a Lake

  1. Dear Don
    sending this blog on to Jack Cohen a biology prof in England, who has been checking out ponds for years. He is also a xenobiologist and assists big SF writers make their aliens believable, has written books with Terry Pratchett.
    yours Heaher

  2. I can’t see anything plus or minus, really, about this lake. Sure, there’ll be cyanobacteria; but without knowing what insect larvae, what protozoans (particularly amoeba) and Hydras are there there’s nothing I could say about the ‘health’ of the lake!

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