Spray Lakes Reservoir

Basic Info
Map Sheets82J/11, 13, 14, 82O/3
Lat / Long50.9000000, -115.3333333
50°53'N, 115°19'W
Area19.9 km2
Max depth65.4 m
Mean depth13.5 m
Dr. Basin Area493 km2
Dam, WeirDam
Drainage BasinBow River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishLake Trout, Mountain Whitefish
Trophic StatusOligotrophic
TP x4 µg/L
CHLORO x2.1 µg/L
TDS x154 mg/L
Photo credit: D. Huet


Spray Lakes Reservoir is a long, narrow impoundment in a mountain valley perched 400 m above the town of Canmore, which is approximately 100 km west of the city of Calgary on Highway 1. To reach the reservoir from Canmore, cross the bridge over the Bow River then follow the winding road past the Canmore Nordic Center. Continue up a long hill for a total of 20 km to the Three Sisters Dam and the north end of the reservoir (FIGURE 1). An alternate route is to start at Peter Lougheed Provincial Park in the Kananaskis Valley and take the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail for about 20 km to the southern portion of the reservoir. Spray Lakes Reservoir is located in Kananaskis Country (Improvement District No. 5), an area of mountains and foothills that has been the focus of recreational development since the 1970s.

The name of the reservoir is taken from two tiny lakes, Upper Spray and Lower Spray, which were originally in the valley where the reservoir now lies (FIGURE 1, inset). These lakes were on a tributary of the Spray River; Upper Spray Lake drained via Buller Creek to Lower Spray Lake which drained by Woods Creek into the Spray River (Miller and Macdonald 1950). The name Buller Creek now refers to a different creek on the east side of the reservoir. Spray River was named for the spray from the Bow Falls in Banff, which drifts across the mouth of the Spray River where it joins the Bow River (Geog. Bd. Can. 1928).

The history of the Spray area tells of three dynamic and determined men who each etched a colourful chapter in the early days of Alberta. The first white man to visit the Spray Lakes area was James Sinclair. He left Fort Garry (now the city of Winnipeg) in 1841 with 23 families, including a 75-year-old woman, with an aim to settle in the Oregon Territory to reinforce the tenuous British claim to the area. After a brief stop at Fort Edmonton, he was guided by Maskepetoon, the chief of the Wetaskiwin Cree, via Lake Minnewanka to the present site of Canmore and on up the valley where the reservoir now lies. They trekked up the Spray River, then along a tributary, White Man's Creek, and across the Great Divide at White Man's Pass (FIGURE 1) (Fraser 1969). The Reverend Robert Rundle was also in the area in 1841. After camping at the confluence of the Bow and Spray rivers, Rundle explored the Spray Valley where it parallels the mountain that now bears his name (Appleby 1975). In 1845, Father Pierre Jean de Smet, a Jesuit priest, came east from Lake Windermere via the Kootenay River and one of its tributaries to the summit of White Man's Pass "where all was wild sublimity". He erected a large cross on the pass, and the river which drains the west side of the pass was henceforth known as the Cross River. From White Man's Pass, de Smet travelled down the Spray River, which was "jewelled with enamelled beads", and on out to the foothills (Fraser 1969).

Canmore, the first divisional point on the Canadian Pacific Railway west of Calgary, was founded in 1884. By 1889, there were 450 residents in the town and the Canmore Mine had been developed to produce coal for the railway (Appleby 1975).

Banff National Park was established in 1885, and in 1902, the boundary was extended to include the Spray and Kananaskis valleys. Mining and lumbering were still permitted, but in 1930, such activities were deemed inappropriate for a national park and the boundary was shifted westward to exclude the Spray and Kananaskis valleys from the park (Appleby 1975).

The potential of the Spray Lakes valley for electrical power generation was recognized by 1911. Calgary Power Ltd. (now TransAlta Utilities Corporation) made intensive surveys in 1921 but it was 1948 before permits were acquired. Two dams were built: Canyon Dam across the Spray River and Three Sisters Dam across the valley above Canmore. The reservoir was first filled in 1950, and power generation began the same year (Appleby 1975).

Until Kananaskis Country was established in the 1970s, the only road up to Spray Lakes Reservoir was a narrow, rough track clinging to the side of Mount Rundle. Only a few recreational visitors persevered to visit the valley. The road was improved in the mid-1980s and now provides good access to the reservoir. There is one campground on the reservoir, Spray Lakes West Campground (FIGURE 2). It is operated by Alberta Recreation and Parks and provides picnic tables and 20 designated sites for tents and trailers (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.).

There are five day-use areas near the lake (FIGURE 2): Driftwood Day-Use Area is on the east shore near the north end, it provides the only boat launch on the reservoir, as well as picnic tables and firepits. Sparrowhawk and Spray Lakes day-use areas are farther south along the east shore and provide firepits and picnic tables. Buller Mountain Day-Use Area is a centre for cross-country skiing and is open for camping only in the winter; picnic tables and firepits are provided. Mt. Shark Day-Use Area is reached via a 3-km-long access road from the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail; it provides parking and picnic tables but no firepits.

Spray Lakes Reservoir is a cold, clear water body with no conspicuous algae. The shores are rocky and kept barren by the fluctuating water level. Recreational use of the lake is low, but fishing for lake trout and mountain whitefish is gaining popularity. Fishing for or with bait fish is not permitted. All tributary streams to the reservoir are closed to fishing for most of the year; in 1989 they were open only from 1 July to 31 October (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). Some people enjoy power boating on the lake, but boaters should be aware of the risks imposed by very cold water and sudden strong winds. Power boats are restricted to a maximum speed of 12 km/ hour in posted areas (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). Hiking in the southern and western portions of the basin is fairly popular, especially along trails that lead to Mt. Assiniboine Provincial Park in British Columbia. Cross-country skiing is very popular on the network of trails that have been developed around the Buller Mountain and Mt. Shark day-use areas.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The large drainage basin of the Spray Lakes Reservoir is bounded by the continental divide along the Alberta-British Columbia border and lies in one of the most mountainous areas of Alberta. Within its almost 500 km2 area (TABLE 1), there are 14 mountains with elevations over 3,000 m, including Mt. Assiniboine, one of the highest peaks in Alberta (FIGURE 1).

The drainage area lies within the Alpine and Subalpine ecoregions (McGregor 1984). The Alpine Ecoregion is typified by bedrock cliffs and peaks with colluvial slopes. Soil development is negligible and only sparse forbs and grasses exist in cracks and fissures in the rock. Some dwarf shrubs (willow and birch) grow where Cumulic Regosolic soils have developed on the lower slopes. Glaciers cover areas near Mt. Assiniboine in the west and near Mt. Sir Douglas and Mt. French to the south. The lower slopes immediately around the reservoir are a good example of the Subalpine Ecoregion. Brunisolic and Podzolic Gray Luvisols have developed under a closed coniferous forest of lodgepole pine and white and Engelmann spruce, and Humic Gleysols are present in wet depressional areas. Along streams such as Smuts Creek, willows and alder grow on Orthic and Humic Regosols.

The watershed is drained by numerous creeks (FIGURE 1): the major ones are Bryant Creek from the Assiniboine area, the Spray River from the southern portion of the drainage basin, and Smuts Creek from the southeast, parallelling the Smith-Dorrien/Spray Trail. The drainage basin was enlarged in 1949 when Calgary Power Ltd. built a small dam at the south end of Mud Lake to direct Burstall Creek from the Kananaskis drainage basin into the Spray basin via Smuts Creek. As well, in 1959, a ditch was built at the south end of Mud Lake to divert French Creek from the Kananaskis basin into the Spray basin (TransAlta Util. Corp. n.d.).

The Spray Lakes Reservoir drainage basin is all Crown land; the western half is in Banff National Park, the southeast quarter is in Peter Lougheed Provincial Park and the northeast quarter is in Kananaskis Country. The major land use in the national and provincial parks is preservation and recreation. Some logging occurred in the area south of the reservoir before Kananaskis Country was established. The Mud, Chester and Ranger lakes area was logged from 1954 to 1960 and the Goat Creek area was logged from 1966 to 1969 (Wiebe 1975).

Lake Basin Characteristics

The Spray Lakes Reservoir is 21-km long but only 1.6-km wide at its widest point (TABLE 2). The lake basin slopes steeply along the east and west sides, whereas the slopes at the ends of the reservoir are more gentle. Depths of over 50 m are found along most of the length of the reservoir. The maximum depth found during a brief bathymetric survey in 1973 was 65.4 m (FIGURE 2). However, the maximum depth of the original Lower Spray Lake was 29.3 m (Miller and Macdonald 1950) and flooding raised the water level at least 50 m; therefore, it is likely that a small area of the reservoir has a depth close to 80 m. The shore of the reservoir is mostly barren rock and cobble with some muddy areas at the south end.

Two dams, both built by Calgary Power Ltd. in 1949, hold back the water (TABLE 2, FIGURE 2). The Canyon Dam blocks the Spray River but releases a continuous flow of at least 0.43 m3/second under an agreement with Parks Canada to maintain fish habitat in the reaches of the Spray River below the dam. The Three Sisters Dam at the north end of the reservoir is operated to release water for electrical power generation (Hudson 1988). The first of three generating stations, the Three Sisters Plant, is at the foot of the dam, approximately 18 m below the full supply level of the reservoir. From there, the water travels via a canal to Goat Pond, then via a 5-km canal and a tunnel to Whiteman's Dam; it then drops 300 m through a penstock to the Spray Plant. Another canal and pond direct the water to a dyke above Canmore; from there the water falls 105 m through another penstock to the Rundle Plant on the bank of the Bow River in Canmore (FIGURE 1, inset).

The reservoir is operated to produce electricity when demand is highest, in the early morning and evening. From 1950, when the reservoir was first filled, until the mid-1970s, the reservoir was filled in the spring, then water was stored to maximize power generation in winter when seasonal demand is highest. Since the mid-1970s, water has been released throughout the year, with peak flows from midsummer onward to help meet demand along the Bow River for water for irrigation and other uses (TransAlta Util. Corp. n.d.; Envir. Can. 1969-1987). The water level fluctuates on a regular basis (FIGURE 3). The mean annual drawdown is 12.06 m; the maximum drawdown was 16.76 m in 1956 (TABLE 2).

Water Quality

The water quality of Spray Lakes Reservoir was studied by Alberta Environment in the summer of 1984 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]).

Spray Lakes Reservoir is a freshwater lake. The water is well-buffered and the dominant ions are bicarbonate, calcium and sulphate (TABLE 3). The reservoir was thermally stratified by 20 June 1984 and a distinct thermocline had developed at a depth of 12 m by 17 July. The water column was well-mixed by 24 September (FIGURE 4). Dissolved oxygen concentrations remained close to saturation from surface to bottom throughout the summer (FIGURE 4).

Spray Lakes Reservoir is oligotrophic; chlorophyll a and total phosphorus levels are low, and the water is clear (TABLE 4, FIGURE 5). The decreased Secchi depth recorded in July 1984 is likely due to suspended silt from runoff.

Biological Characteristics


There is no information on the algae or aquatic plants in Spray Lakes Reservoir.


The zooplankton and benthic invertebrates in the reservoir were sampled by Fish and Wildlife Division in September 1973 (Wiebe 1975). Diacyclops bicuspidatus thomasi was strongly dominant in the zooplankton and Daphnia rosea was secondary in abundance.

Benthic invertebrates were sampled at 10 sites with depths from 7 to 35 m on 9 September 1973. No animals were found at the five sites above the zone of average drawdown. Midge larvae (Chironomidae) were sparse at the other sites and fingernail clams (Sphaeriidae) were found at three sites.

In October 1982, opossum shrimp (Mysis relicta) were taken from Upper Kananaskis Lake and stocked in the reservoir to enhance the food supply for young lake trout and cisco. It was hoped that cisco would become the primary prey for adult lake trout (Hughes 1982). The success of the introduction of opossum shrimp had not been monitored as of 1988, but the stomach contents of 51 lake trout caught in 1986 did not include any Mysis (Stelfox 1988). This was not surprising, as it took 12 years for the opossum shrimp stocked in the Kananaskis Lakes to become sufficiently established to provide a substantial food source for fish.


The Spray Valley has been renowned for its excellent sport fishery since the Bow Valley was settled. Prior to the filling of the reservoir in 1950, the valley was naturally divided into two zones by Spray Falls, a 12.2-m waterfall on the Spray River upstream of the river's confluence with Smuts Creek (inset, FIGURE 1). The lower zone provided an excellent fishery for cutthroat trout and bull trout. Some rainbow trout and mountain whitefish were caught as well. Above Spray Falls, the fishery was for cutthroat and bull trout.

A Fish and Wildlife Division study in 1948 found distinct differences between the populations of cutthroat trout above and below Spray Falls (Miller and Macdonald 1950). The lower population was larger, faster growing (3 times the size of the upper-zone fish at age 4) and had redder flesh. These differences were partially attributed to the better food supply available in the Spray Lakes. It was predicted that the creation of a deep reservoir with large fluctuations in water levels that would inundate the lakes and falls would reduce the cutthroat populations and slow their growth rate. Sampling in the reservoir has traced the decline of the cutthroat population, which fell from 85% of the catch 2 years after reservoir filling (1952), to 0.4% in 1973, to none caught in 1981 or 1986 (TABLE 5).

To rebuild the sport fishery in the reservoir, Fish and Wildlife Division introduced approximately 400,000 lake trout as eyed-eggs between 1951 and 1954 and 6 million cisco eggs in 1953 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Lake trout spawn successfully in the reservoir but numbers were still low in the early 1980s. From 1982 to 1986, Fish and Wildlife Division annually stocked 27,000 to 75,000 lake trout averaging 9.0 cm. In 1986, test nets indicated good survival rates of these fish (Stelfox 1988) and anglers reported excellent fishing for lake trout in 1988 (Hudson 1988).

The cisco stocked in 1953 were to have provided a stable food supply for the lake trout. They spawned successfully for a few years, but in 1986, no cisco under 23 years of age were caught, indicating that no succesful spawning has occurred since about 1964 (Stelfox 1988). This species rarely lives over 30 years, so it will likely disappear from the Spray Lakes Reservoir by the end of the 1980s.

Mountain whitefish are abundant in the reservoir and reproduce successfully in the tributaries, but they do not seem to be preyed upon by lake trout. The mountain whitefish population is largely made up of old fish; 50% of those caught in 1986 were over 10 years old. The oldest one caught was 29 years old; it may be the oldest fish of this species ever caught in North America (Stelfox 1988).

The lack of appropriate prey for lake trout in the reservoir has led them to survive almost exclusively on plankton and midge larvae. Only 2% of 51 fish caught in 1986 had fish in their stomachs. The scarcity of fish in the diet of lake trout is likely one reason why the lake trout in Spray Lakes Reservoir die younger and are smaller at all ages than lake trout in lakes with abundant forage fish such as Lake Minnewanka (Stelfox 1988).


The wildlife in the Spray Lakes area is typical of mountain wilderness. Mule deer, elk, moose and black bears are common and grizzly bears are present in the area. Mountain goats and bighorn sheep can be seen on mountain slopes and wolves and cougars are occasionally seen or heard. The Spray Lakes are not used extensively by waterfowl or aquatic mammals because of the scarcity of aquatic vegetation.

J.M. Crosby


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