Our Crowded Lakes

[Note: The following was first published in the April 2016 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]

Copyright © 2016 Don H. Meredith, All Rights Reserved.

You’ve had a long week at work and you’re looking forward to the coming weekend when you can take the family out on the lake to do some fishing and enjoy a summer day on the water. You rise on a beautiful Saturday morning, pack the gear and head out. Arriving at the boat launch you are surprised by the number of boats and trailers ahead of you. You realize it’s going to be an hour or more before you get on the lake. Once on the lake, your idyllic vision of what a day of fishing should be is marred by the noise from several oversize speed boats, wake action from those boats violently rocking your boat and the hijinks of a few who don’t respect the rights of others wanting to enjoy the lake peacefully.

Wabamun Boat Launch

The Village of Wabamun launch can be quite crowded on summer weekends.

Sadly, the above scenario is becoming more common on recreational lakes across the province. As more and more people poured into Alberta during the past economic boom, more and more boats were purchased and hauled to lakes. The problem is the number of lakes in Alberta is finite and more boats means more crowded lakes, at least on the weekends. Over the last few years, it has become an issue for many people who use lakes and for local municipalities who have to deal with the conflicts and attempt to mitigate them.

Wabamun Lake
For example, Wabamun is a very popular recreational lake less than an hour’s drive west from Edmonton. It is relatively large and has many amenities and services for people coming to enjoy the lake: a provincial park with day-use and campground, a year-round village with the usual visitor services (food and hardware stores, restaurants, accommodations), several summer villages, and about 20 boat launches of varying quality around the lake.

Wabamun Boat Launch

The Village of Wabamun manages its launch so that boats can be launched and loaded efficiently. The village is planning to expand the launch.

According to a 2013 Parkland County study of boat launches on the lake, the most popular launch was at the Village of Wabamun (49% of users responding to a survey) on the east end of the lake. This is a double-vehicle, concrete launch with pull-through parking for 14 vehicles with trailers, and overflow parking for another 50. There is an adjacent timber pier with floating boarding docks. The village charges a $15 a day ($300 a season) for use of the launch.

The second most popular launch was at the Summer Village of Seba Beach (19%) on the west end of the lake. The single launch consisted of gravel access to natural shoreline. Vehicles with trailers were banned from the adjacent parking lot, forcing boaters to park on the streets. Last year Seba Beach closed the launch because of the congestion and the conflict between residents and people parking in residential areas. The closure pushed boaters to less desirable launches around the lake, causing congestion and conflict at those locations.

Fallis Boat Launch

Many boat launches around Wabamun Lake are ad hoc on unstable shoreline going into shallow water.

Wabamun Lake Provincial Park at the east end of the lake was the third most popular launch site (12%) in the 2013 study. In light of the shutdown at Seba Beach, I assume the provincial park launch is now the second (or the first) most popular. It includes a double-vehicle concrete launch and an adjacent concrete hand launch, with associated floating docks. This site has the largest number of parking spaces for vehicles and trailers on the lake (140 pull-through stalls), plus a large day-use area. The park maintains the site and does not charge a fee for use.

On any given weekend in the summer with half-decent weather, it doesn’t take long for those 140 parking stalls at the provincial park and 64 stalls at the village to fill up. In Wabamun, vehicles with boats have on occasion lined-up nearly out to the highway. Because of the congestion, the village has employed monitors to direct traffic at the launch ensuring boats are launched efficiently. However, vehicles and trailers late to the game are parking on side streets, again creating conflict with residents.

Rich's Point Boat Launch

Some more established launches on Wabamun Lake have a few amenities but little parking.

This crowding on weekends prompted Parkland County’s 2013 boat launch study. It recommended the launches at Wabamun village and the provincial park be upgraded to better handle more boats and vehicles, and that an additional launch site be developed on the south shore of the lake. Although user surveys indicated an improved launch was needed on the west end of the lake, the report stated the Seba Beach site was not suitable because of poor shoreline conditions, shallow water depth and little space for future development (forecasting the launch’s closure). Although there are many other launch sites around the lake, most are ad hoc—not developed or with minimum facilities, few parking spaces, shallow water or unstable shoreline.

Boat Carrying Capacity
Crowding at launches is one thing but boat traffic on a lake itself can be a problem of its own. Just how many boats can a particular lake of a particular size sustain before such traffic starts affecting the health of the lake and everyone’s enjoyment of it? Good question that has been asked many times across North America but no universal answer has been provided. The boat “carrying capacity” of a lake is the maximum number of boats the lake can handle before damage to the health of the lake occurs. It can also be defined in terms of the different kinds of boating activities on the lake. For example, kayak and canoe use is generally incompatible in the same area of a lake where there are personal watercraft, speedboats towing water skiers, or fishing boats travelling to a fishing area. Likewise fast moving boats are incompatible in areas where fishing boats have stopped to fish.

The size of the lake, its depth and major use are also factors in measuring the boat carrying capacity. For example, a lake far from major cities might attract mostly fishing boats. Fishing boats are generally less obtrusive because they usually don’t speed and tend to be smaller in size than boats used for speed or towing skiers. Canoes, kayaks and rowboats are the least obtrusive but even they have a limit based on the fact that most users prefer some solitude.

The wake a boat or personal watercraft makes can also affect a lake. They have little affect in water over two metres in depth but in shallow water a boat’s prop wash and its wake can disturb sediment on the bottom that becomes suspended in the water and eventually settle on underwater plants (that supply food and habitat for fish) or fish spawning areas. Wakes can also disturb nesting birds, like grebes, which construct nests in the vegetation along the shore and cannot tolerate those nests being flooded from waves.

Water pollution is also an issue with boats. The pollution made by older, 2-cycle motors is well documented. Twenty-five to 30% of the fuel is not burned but injected into the water. Newer 2-cycle motors expel less fuel, but the much heavier 4-cyle motors are best at preventing this direct pollution.

Many lakes in the U.S. and Canada have had some success zoning lakes, where shallow water, sensitive wildlife areas, special fishing areas and approaches to launches are marked on the water (usually with buoys) and boats are required to slow down or not enter these areas. Perhaps it’s time to start zoning our lakes and enforcing regulations that control the boat speed in certain zones.

Comments are always welcome (below).


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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.
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5 Responses to Our Crowded Lakes

  1. Neil Fleming says:

    Great piece Don and very timely. It is a sad circumstance when during our all too short summers, we hope for rain on long weekends to reduce the amount of boat traffic on our lakes. The up side, I guess, is that until we can get adequate boat inspections at our launches, the risk of Aquatic Invasive Species being introduced into the lakes is also diminished.

  2. Stan Franklin says:

    Excellent article Don. The content is timely and I was wondering if some of the content might be worked into the Newsletter and then give a link to the full article.

    Stan Sent from my iPhone


  3. Gary W says:

    I think that the problems you have mentioned are certainly of some concern. However I think some of the proposed solutions, especially the mooring policy which was proposed by / in the works by AEP, are a bit much. In response to the overcrowding at launches, the county decided to CLOSE several of the neighbourhood launches. This seems like an out of touch, bureaucratic approach to what was locally managed for decades. In particular, Ascot and Rich’s point are slated to be closed and made into a day use area / beach with no launch! This limits the usefulness of this site for day use and for the neighbours, and from personal experience the Rich’s point site was never very overcrowded to begin with since its hard to launch anything but a PWC there due to the mud and shallowness.

    Also, I am not sure of the usefulness or practicality of marking off areas of the lake with buoys. Our neighbours mark a shallow shoal out front with buoys and it seems like they are always missing or dragged out of place after a storm. Who would ensure that they don’t drift out of place creating a hazard of their own? I think that until something is a problem you shouldn’t introduce more regulations, neighbours and sailing clubs on the lake have already done a wonderful job co ordinating making sure that everyone knows what’s up and no one for example establishes a mooring field in a busy area, or leaves a low floating swim raft where it could get hit. Many of us are traditional rural folks and don’t like the government making rules that were made by a drone in an office, with little understanding of the reality of the situation. I am not saying that describes you, you seem to know the lake quite well. It describes who would be making these decisions, in all likelihood, and if we don’t like the outcome of the zoning, there might not be any appeal process.

    Something that concerns me also, is AEP is planning a “mooring policy”. It seems like major governmental overreach into the everyday lives of lake users. For example, our pier is longer than 30′ which is the proposed maximum. It needs to be that long due to the shallowness of the frontage. Also we have one boat lift and two PWC lifts (one for each family that owns the cottage), which is also over the proposed “disturbance standard”. If we are forced to make a detailed application and wait for approval every year we wont be too thrilled!

    Also keeping with the above AEP policy, the proposed 10-30 rule control buoys all along lakefronts in alberta- give me a break! How much did the ones they put up at Seba cost?? Just post signs about the 10-30 rule, big ones and at every launch, and enforce it. Word will get out. No need to spend tens of thousands of dollars and then go shift them around every time the wind blows!

    I hope this didnt sound too critical, I appreciate your passion for the Lake!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Gave up fishing for just this problem…….where I live in South Carolina lakes such as Lake Murray even on week days have a great many boaters. So it has become and endurance situation rather than an enjoyable one. Also the great pressure on the fishery over the years has made catching fish a very hard and professional issue. Even when you know exactly what to do, the fish are far and few between………too many people, not enough fish or lakes. Each year more and more people. I have watched even rivers become over run with people, where we used to catch quality fish it is now rare to catch good fish consistently simply due to overuse of the fishery. Even bass tournaments that have the so called catch and release, many of the fish die upon release. So gradually a great strain is put on the fishery and as they still allow taking bass from the spawning beds during spring, this also allows small fish to gobble up the eggs and this further reduces the population of Bass………killing weeds totally like Hydrilla also contributes to the demise of the fishery. So it has become pointless to even go fishing. Time for a new hobby.


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