Crawling Valley Reservoir

Basic Info
Map Sheets82I/16
Lat / Long50.9333333, -112.3500000
50°55'N, 112°20'W
Area25.1 km2
Max depth16 m
Mean depth5.2 m
Dr. Basin Area802 km2
Dam, WeirDam
Drainage BasinRed Deer River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishRainbow Trout, Brook Trout, Northern Pike, Brown Trout
Trophic StatusMesotrophic
TP x57 µg/L
CHLORO x12.2 µg/L
TDS x238 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Crawling Valley Reservoir is a large, newly created offstream storage reservoir in the Eastern Irrigation District and the County of Newell. The reservoir is almost 18-km long; the best access to the reservoir is at a recreation area on the west shore at the south end, near the main dam. To reach the south end of the reservoir from the city of Calgary, take Highway 1 east until you are just north of the town of Bassano, then turn off Highway 1 and continue travelling east for 5 km, then north for 3 km and east for 2 km (FIGURE 1). The campground and day-use area were built by a group of local citizens, the Crawling Valley Recreation Society, who were assisted by Alberta Environment, Alberta Recreation and Parks, the Eastern Irrigation District and the County of Newell. Facilities include 60 campsites in 1988 and 60 more campsites slated for completion in 1989, and a day-use area with picnic tables, tap water, a telephone and a boat launch. A 1.6 ha subimpoundment of the reservoir was built at the recreation area to provide stable water levels for swimming and sand was brought in for a beach. There are no boating restrictions specific to Crawling Valley Reservoir, but general federal regulations are in effect (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988).

The recent history of the Crawling Valley area goes back to the 1870s when the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) built its trans-Canada railway line across the prairies. The Canadian government gave the CPR alternate sections of land along the right-of-way. In southern Alberta, the CPR exchanged the alternate sections for two large blocks of land, one near the town of Brooks and one near the town of Strathmore. In 1910, the CPR built the Bassano Dam on the Bow River southwest of Brooks to supply irrigation water to the area around the locality of Gem. To get the water from the Bow River to where it was needed, the North Branch Canal was built, but water had to cross 20-m-deep Crawling Valley. To do this, a trestled wood-stave flume was built in 1912 and water was flowing through the system by 1914. In 1926, the flume needed to be replaced and the use of Crawling Valley as a storage site was first considered. However, the flume was replaced in 1929 with a semicircular woodstave flume and the idea of a reservoir was dropped; the same flume provided reliable service until 1985, when Crawling Valley Reservoir was built and took over the flume's function.

Settlement of the area accelerated after the irrigation system became operational in 1914, but World War I soon followed, then an agricultural recession, then the depression and drought of the "Dirty Thirties". Farmers who had bought land from the CPR could not make enough profit to meet their payments. Meanwhile, the CPR was suffering heavy operating losses and saw little hope for recovery of its investment in the irrigation project. When the farmers offered to assume responsibility for the irrigation works, the CPR welcomed the suggestion. On 1 May 1935, the CPR transferred the irrigation works, the existing land contracts, all unsold lands and $300,000 to the farmer's organization, and the Eastern Irrigation District was formed (Gross and Nicoll Kramer 1985). The block of land near Strathmore followed suit; in 1944 it became the Western Irrigation District.

In 1942, Ducks Unlimited (Canada) saw the potential for waterfowl production in the area. They built a low dam north of the Crawling Valley flume, and from 1943 until 1985 a volume of up to one million cubic metres of water was diverted annually from the canal near the flume to create Barkenhouse Lake. Crawling Valley Reservoir now includes this area.

In 1954, in response to the increased demand for irrigation water along the North Branch Canal, the Eastern Irrigation District requested that Agriculture Canada's Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration investigate the feasibility of building Crawling Valley Reservoir. Plans for a dam 300 m north of the existing flume were drawn up, but due to lack of funds, the dam was not built. From 1975 to 1977, the Planning Division of Alberta Environment investigated potential storage sites in the Eastern Irrigation District and identified Crawling Valley as one that would help meet demands. In 1980, funds for the project were allocated under the Alberta Environment Irrigation Headworks and Main Irrigation Systems Improvement Program, funded by the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Engineering expertise was provided by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration. Construction began in 1983 and water first entered the reservoir in the fall of 1984 (Alta. Envir. 1984; Gross and Nicoll Kramer 1985). The reservoir is owned and operated by the Eastern Irrigation District. It now provides adequate water to the existing irrigation development, which covers 8,700 ha, and will allow future expansion for irrigation of a total of 22,000 ha (Alta. Envir. 1984).

Crawling Valley Reservoir has been stocked with rainbow, brook and brown trout, and in 1988, it provided an outstanding sport fishery. Angling is not permitted within 100 m of the inlet to the reservoir, and because trout spawn in the inlet canal, fishing is prohibited in the Eastern Irrigation District North Branch Canal between its origin near the Bow River and Crawling Valley Reservoir (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). Concentrations of algae in the reservoir are moderate and the reservoir has good potential for recreational use.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

Crawling Valley was created as a meltwater channel when the Laurentide ice sheet melted at the end of the last continental glaciation. The sinuous north-to-south valley lies approximately 20 m below the adjacent uplands. The northern end of the drainage basin is only 4 km south of the Red Deer River, but the natural drainage was via Matzhiwin Creek which flows south for 45 km then east for another 40 km before it drains into the Red Deer River just upstream of Dinosaur Provincial Park.

Although the reservoir's natural drainage basin is large (802 km2, TABLE 1), most of the area is hummocky moraine, which traps runoff so only 40 km2 of the drainage basin contributes runoff to the valley, even during a 1-in-20-year flood (Agric. Can. 1982). Natural inflow via Matzhiwin Creek (FIGURE 1) is usually negligible and provides less than 1% of the water in Crawling Valley Reservoir. Almost all of the inflow comes via the North Branch Canal from the Bow River upstream of the Bassano Dam (East. Irrig. Dist. n.d.) and the outflow leaves the reservoir via a continuation of the North Branch Canal. Seepage from the dam maintains a year-round flow of approximately 0.01 m3/second in Matzhiwin Creek downstream of the reservoir (East. Irrig. Dist. n.d.).

The bedrock under the valley is the nonmarine sandstone and sandy shales of the Horseshoe Canyon Formation overlain by marine shales of the Bearpaw Formation. Between the Bearpaw Formation bedrock and the overlying glacial till, there is a thick gravel deposit of preglacial age that was buried on the floor of an ancestral river valley, the Calgary Valley, which flowed in a northeast direction. This basal gravel extends below the full length of the reservoir and is, for the most part, overlain by approximately 16 m of impervious till and alluvial clay.

The northern part of the reservoir and the western portion of the drainage basin are part of the Mixed Grass Ecoregion, whereas the southern part of the reservoir and the eastern portion of the basin are part of the Short Grass Ecoregion (Strong and Leggat 1981). The natural vegetation is a complex of grama, wheat and spear grasses, with buckbrush and willow in depressions and in damp areas. Cushion cactus was found on slopes in the valley in 1982 (Alta. Envir. 1984). Large areas of original grassland still exist around the reservoir and on the uplands, but much of the basin has been cultivated for improved pasture or grain production (mostly wheat) on nonirrigated land. Alfalfa is the most important crop on irrigated land.

Soils in the northern portion of the drainage basin are mostly Solonetzic Dark Brown Chernozemics that developed on glacial till; south of the middle of the reservoir there is a complex of Solonetzic Brown Chernozemics and Orthic Brown Chernozemics (Kjearsgaard et al. 1983). In Crawling Valley, there are poorly drained lacustrine deposits where Rego-Gleysols and saline Rego-Gleysols have developed. At the north end of the reservoir there are areas of Brown Solodized Solonetzic soils (Alta. Envir. 1984). Salt-crusted alkali flats were present in the northern third of the reservoir area before it was flooded.

The major land use in the drainage basin is low-intensity farming, both dryland and irrigated. There are several active gas wells in the area but no population centres.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Crawling Valley Reservoir is a long, sinuous water body that stretches for almost 18 km, has a maximum width of 4 km and covers an area of 25 km2 (TABLE 2, FIGURE 2). Because the reservoir flooded a valley with innumerable side coulees, the shoreline is very complex and is approximately 150-km long. The reservoir is quite shallow (maximum depth = 16 m) and the bottom slopes gently except in the immediate area of the dam. Approximately 60% of the reservoir is less than 5-m deep (FIGURE 3).

The main dam, built at the south end of the reservoir in 1983 and 1984, is 1 710-m long and 18.7-m high. The full supply level of the reservoir is 785.0 m, but if there were extremely high precipitation in the basin, water levels could rise to 787.5 m (FIGURE 3). To limit flooding along the eastern shore at a water level of 787.5 m, thirteen dykes were built across coulees on the east side of the reservoir. When the reservoir was filled, it covered Barkenhouse Lake and the "South Reservoir", a pond just south of Barkenhouse Lake. These water bodies provided important habitat for nesting and migrating waterfowl. To replace the valuable waterfowl habitat that would be flooded by Crawling Valley Reservoir, three interior dams were built to create three subimpoundments (FIGURE 2). These dams allow water to flow into the subimpoundments when reservoir water levels are high; control structures operated by Ducks Unlimited (Canada) and the Eastern Irrigation District are closed to prevent water from flowing out of the subimpoundments when the reservoir is drawn down. Water can be pumped into the subimpoundments from the reservoir in early spring to raise the water level before the nesting season. Natural islands in the south subimpoundment provide secure nesting sites and Ducks Unlimited (Canada) has built islands to increase nesting sites in the northern subimpoundments (Schmidt 1989).

More than 99% of the water entering the reservoir comes from the Bow River via the Eastern Irrigation District North Branch Canal. This canal empties into the reservoir at the southwest corner and water drains from the reservoir at the southeast corner via a portal at an elevation of 777 m. The reservoir is operated to fill from April through June. Water is then withdrawn from July through September. If water is available, some filling may occur in the autumn. There is no flow in the canals from late October through March and natural runoff is negligible. The reservoir has been operated since 1986; summer drawdown over the three years from 1986 to 1988 averaged 1.5 m (East. Irrig. Dist. n.d.).

The residence time of the water in the reservoir is estimated to be 1.4 years, but as most of the flow "short-circuits" through the south end, the actual residence time is likely much shorter in the southern end and much longer in the northern end of the reservoir.

Water Quality

Water first entered Crawling Valley Reservoir in the fall of 1984 and the reservoir was full by the summer of 1985. Water quality was monitored by Alberta Environment on three occasions in the summer of 1986 and approximately monthly in 1989 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]).

As of 1986, the reservoir was filled with fresh, well-buffered water. The dominant ions were bicarbonate, sulphate and calcium. The concentrations of total dissolved solids and most ions were highest at the north end (TABLE 3). On 18 June and 23 July 1986 the water column was weakly thermally stratified (FIGURE 4). In July, dissolved oxygen concentrations near the bottom were low. In February 1989, the dissolved oxygen concentration was high (10.8 mg/L) near the surface but fairly low (1.9 mg/L) near the bottom (FIGURE 4). Trout winterkills have not been reported, indicating that dissolved oxygen does not become severely depleted under ice.

Only one year after the reservoir was filled, the water was moderately nutrient-rich and the concentration of nutrients increased from south to north (TABLE 4). Three sites were monitored: one at the north end of the reservoir, one at the south end and one in the middle. At all three sites, the concentration of total phosphorus was highest on 23 July and chlorophyll a was highest on 24 September (FIGURE 5). The data indicate that Crawling Valley Reservoir was mesotrophic in 1986. It is likely that the water will become more nutrient-rich over the first five to seven years after initial filling of the reservoir as nutrients are leached from the inundated soils; there were reports of excessively "green" water in the northern half in 1988 (Kemper 1989). After this period of trophic upsurge, the nutrient level may drop, depending in part on flushing rates and water level fluctuations.

Biological Characteristics

There is no detailed information on the algae or macrophytes in Crawling Valley Reservoir. By 1988, submergent macrophytes, including northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens) and Sago (Potamogeton pectinatus) and Richardson (P. richardsonii) pondweeds had densely colonized the three subimpoundments (Schmidt 1989).


There are no data on the zooplankton or benthic invertebrates in Crawling Valley Reservoir.


Before Crawling Valley Reservoir was filled, Barkenhouse Lake and the South Reservoir supported a population of tiger salamanders (Ambystoma tigrinum melanosticum), which live in shallow areas where macrophytes grow densely. This population was thought to be neotenic, a condition where reproductively mature salamanders retain larval characteristics such as external gills and do not metamorphose into the adult form. Such variants are not common in Alberta (Alta. Envir. 1984). The fate of salamanders in the area is not known; in other stocked lakes and reservoirs, for example Tyrrell Lake, the salamanders fall prey to trout and populations are quickly decimated.


Prior to reservoir filling, Barkenhouse Lake and the South Reservoir supported a resident population of fathead minnows and brook stickleback, species that are tolerant of low dissolved oxygen concentrations. Longnose sucker, white sucker and shorthead redhorse, which were also found, may have been migrants from the North Branch Canal. The fish in the Bow River have access to Crawling Valley Reservoir from the North Branch Canal; northern pike, rainbow trout and the three species of suckers have been caught in the canal (Alta. Envir. 1984).

Fish and Wildlife Division stocked Crawling Valley Reservoir with 324,000 rainbow trout, 108,000 brook trout and 375 brown trout in 1985, the year the reservoir was first filled. In each of 1987 and 1988, 434 000 rainbow trout were stocked (Alta. En. Nat. Resour. 1985; Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1986-1988). In 1988, the sport fishery was excellent and very popular, attracting anglers from as far away as Edmonton. There has been no evidence of winterkill and trout growth rates appear to be high; rainbow trout up to 8 kg were frequently caught in 1988. In the spring of 1988, rainbow trout were seen attempting to spawn in the upper reaches of the North Branch Canal. Fish and Wildlife Division spread gravel in the canal in late 1988 to improve the habitat for spawning (Fitch 1989). By summer of 1989, trout were less frequently caught and pike were the most commonly caught sport fish (Bishop 1989).


Crawling Valley Reservoir inundated Barkenhouse Lake, a Ducks Unlimited (Canada) project that had provided excellent habitat for migrating and nesting waterfowl, including eight species of dabbling ducks, nine species of diving ducks, Canada Geese, American Bitterns and colonial nesters such as Western and Eared grebes, Double-crested Cormorants, California Gulls and Common Terns. Black-crowned Night Herons and Ring-billed Gulls were probably nesting there as well (Alta. Envir. 1984). By 1988, the subimpoundments in the reservoir were developing into excellent waterfowl habitat. Submergent macrophytes had developed and emergent species were becoming established. In 1989, it was expected that some areas would be fenced off to prevent cattle from trampling the shoreline of the northern subimpoundment and nesting waterfowl would be surveyed by Ducks Unlimited (Canada). In 1988, thousands of birds stopped on Crawling Valley Reservoir during migration (Schmidt 1989).

In 1982, a survey of Crawling Valley was conducted for Alberta Environment (Alta. Envir. 1984). Sixteen species of shorebirds were reported, including Long-billed Curlews and Avocets, as well as 2 species of upland game birds, 6 species of raptors and 21 species of passerines. The valley has changed since 1982, but the reservoir and the subimpoundments have been designed to replace lost habitat.

Eleven species of mammals were observed in the 1982 survey. Pronghorn antelope use the valley year-round and mule deer are present but not abundant. Furbearers include weasels, coyotes, muskrats, white-tailed jackrabbits, mink, red foxes and badgers. Richardson's ground squirrels, deer mice and prairie voles are common.

J.M. Crosby


Agriculture Canada. n.d. Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Admin. Unpubl. data, Lethbridge.

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-----. n.d.[b]. Tech. Serv. Div., Hydrol. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. 1984. Crawling Valley Reservoir: Environmental effects and mitigation, Vol. I: Main report. Plan. Div., Edmonton.

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Kjearsgaard, A.A., T.W. Peters and W.W. Pettapiece. 1983. Soil survey of the County of Newell, Alberta. Alta. Soil Surv. Rep. No. 41, Alta. Inst. Pedol. Rep. No. S-82-41, Ld. Resour. Res. Inst. Contribution No. LRRI 83-48. Agric. Can., Res. Br., Edmonton.

Schmidt, K. 1989. Ducks Unltd. (Can.), Brooks. Pers. comm.

Strong, W.L. and K.R. Leggat. 1981. Ecoregions of Alberta. Alta. En. Nat. Resour., Resour. Eval. Plan. Div., Edmonton.