Buffalo Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83A
Lat / Long52.4666667, -112.9000000
52°28'N, 112°54'W
Area93.5 km2
Max depth6.5 m
Mean depth2.8 m
Dr. Basin Area1440 km2
Dam, WeirNone
Drainage BasinRed Deer River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishNorthern Pike
Trophic StatusMain: Mesotrohpic
Secondary: Mesotrophic
TP xMain: 59
Secondary: 77 µg/L
CHLORO xMain: 5.4
Secondary: 9.4 µg/L
TDS xMain: 1683
Secondary: 1420 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Buffalo Lake is a large, shallow lake in central Alberta, 40 km northeast of Red Deer in the counties of Camrose, Stettler and Lacombe (FIGURE 1). To reach Buffalo Lake from the town of Lacombe, drive east on Highway 12 for 68 km to the hamlet of Erskine, then turn north on Secondary Road 835 and drive for 15 km to Rochon Sands Provincial Park. Access routes to other recreation areas are shown on Figures 1 and 2.

There are four public recreation areas on Buffalo Lake (FIGURE 2). Rochon Sands Provincial Park offers a campground with 69 sites, tap water, a telephone, a boat launch, change houses, a sand beach, picnic shelters, a playground and sewage disposal facilities. The Narrows Recreation Area on the southwest end of the lake is operated by Alberta Recreation and Parks. It offers a 72-site campground, pump water and picnic shelters. Buffalo Lake Recreation Area (previously Boss Hill Park) is on the east end of the lake. This area is also operated by Alberta Recreation and Parks and offers a campground with 25 sites, pump water, a sand beach, change houses, picnic shelters, a playground and a boat launch. Pelican Point Park is on the north shore near the east end of the lake. It is operated by the County of Camrose and offers a 100-site campground, pump water, a sand beach, change houses, a boat launch, a playground and a concession (Alta. Hotel Assoc. 1988).

The lake is naturally divided into four areas (FIGURE 2). Main Bay at the east end is the largest and deepest (maximum depth of 6.5 m) and supports most of the recreational activity on the lake. Secondary Bay, to the west of Main Bay, is smaller and so shallow (maximum depth of 2.5 m) that it was possible to drive wagons across it when water levels were extremely low in the 1930s. The Narrows is the channel west of Secondary Bay and is a popular fishing area. Parlby Bay is the small bay west of the Narrows; because it is very shallow (maximum depth of 1.1 m) and densely filled with aquatic plants, it provides excellent waterfowl habitat.

The lake was labelled Buffalo Lake on David Thompson's map of 1814. It was so named for its resemblance to the profile of a buffalo with the legs to the north and the head to the east (Alta. Cult. Multicult. n.d.). Palliser named it Bull Lake on his 1860 map, but Thompson's name is still retained (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976). The trembling aspen and fescue grassland habitat around the lake likely attracted herds of buffalo. The lake was also a favourite Cree and Blackfoot camping area (Lamerton Hist. Soc. 1974). In 1858, Father Lacombe, then a young missionary, travelled for two days in bitter weather to help a group of Blackfoot Indians dying of scarlet fever in their encampment on the east shore of Buffalo Lake. After treating them for 20 days, he too almost died from the fever, but later recovered to become a leading figure in Alberta's history (Lamerton Hist. Soc. 1974). Buffalo Lake Settlement on the southwest side of the lake was one of the earliest settlements in central Alberta. It was established in 1883, well before the mainstream of settlers arrived between 1891 and 1905 (Lamerton Hist. Soc. 1974). The beach within Rochon Sands Provincial Park was a popular picnic spot for the early settlers, who called it "Hannah's Beach". The name of the area was later changed to Rochon Sands, when land owned by Mr. Rochon was subdivided (Finlay and Finlay 1987). The land for the provincial park was set aside in 1933 and 1934, and the park was officially established in 1957 (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.).

By 1923, 23 cottages had been built on the lake; this remained unchanged until 1951 (Red Deer Reg. Plan. Commis. 1977). By 1982, there were 650 cottages in 4 subdivisions and 2 summer villages, all located on Main Bay (FIGURE 2). Two new subdivisions remained undeveloped as of 1982 (HLA Consult. 1982).

The water in Buffalo Lake is moderately saline. It is generally quite clear, but algae may become conspicuous in late summer, especially in the western half of the lake. Buffalo Lake is popular for boating, swimming and beach activities. All boats are restricted from some posted areas and power vessels are restricted to speeds of 12 km/hour or less in other posted areas of the lake (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). Northern pike provide a locally important sport fishery. The Narrows (FIGURE 2), which is the most popular area for angling, is closed to fishing from late March to late May each year to protect spawning pike. Angling in inflowing Parlby Creek is restricted during the same period (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). The lake is one of the most important waterfowl breeding and staging areas in Alberta.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The drainage basin of Buffalo Lake is large (1,440 km2); it consists of a gently rolling glacial till plain that slopes from an elevation of 975 m on the western boundary to 780 m at the lake. Much of the basin, particularly north and east of the lake, is knob and kettle terrain. It formed when large chunks of ice, left in the gravel by the retreating ice sheet, melted and left holes or "kettles". These depressions, which are now filled with water, are pothole lakes, and the surrounding gravel hills are "knobs". These small lakes form pockets of dead storage that do not contribute surface runoff to Buffalo Lake (Bowser et al. 1947; 1951).

The drainage basin lies within the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion; the dominant native vegetation is trembling aspen, wild rose and saskatoon, with rough fescue grassland on drier, south-facing slopes. Approximately 65% of the basin has been cleared for agriculture. Rich Black Chernozemic soils and adequate precipitation make the western portion of the watershed one of the most productive areas of Alberta for wheat, oat and canola production (Strong and Leggat 1981).

Most of the lakeshore is privately owned; areas of Crown land are shown on Figure 2. The drainage basin includes the town of Bashaw, the villages of Mirror, Alix and Clive and the hamlet of Tees. There is some gas exploration and extraction in the basin.

Lake Basin Characteristics

The surface area of Buffalo Lake is moderate-sized relative to its drainage basin (Tables 1, 2). The lake is 20.5-km long and 8.2-km wide at its widest point. It has an irregular shape, and is divided into two large basins and one small basin (FIGURE 2).

Main Bay is the largest basin. It slopes gently to a maximum depth of 6.5 m. The nearshore areas are mostly sand, and there are extensive sand beaches along the south and east sides of the bay. The lake bottom near the north shore is also sandy, but plant growth in protected bays has left some organic debris (Haag and Noton 1981). There are two islands in Main Bay: one large one to the northeast and a tiny one near Rochon Sands Provincial Park that disappears when water levels are high.

Secondary Bay is about one-third the area of Main Bay. The lake bottom slopes very gradually to a maximum depth of 2.5 m. The shoreline along the north side of the bay is sand, with silt increasing from 0% on shore to 60% at a depth of 1.5 m. The lake bottom along the south shore is coarser sand, with fine-textured sediment in sheltered areas (Haag and Noton 1981). Pelican Island, a large, low, sand and gravel island, separates Main Bay from Secondary Bay.

Parlby Bay is the smallest bay. It lies west of Secondary Bay and is joined to it by the Narrows, a 15-m-wide, 1.0-km-long channel. The maximum depth of Parlby Bay is 1.1 m. The sediments are much finer than in the rest of the lake and include a large proportion of clay (Haag and Noton 1981). Aquatic plants grow across the entire bottom of the bay, and motor boat travel is impossible during the summer.

Almost all surface inflow to the lake enters at the west end of Parlby Bay through Parlby Creek (FIGURE 2). There are a few intermittent streams around the shore, but the volume they contribute to the lake is negligible (Alta. Envir. 1982; Clare and Ko 1982). In 1985, an Alberta Environment drainage and flood control project to deepen and straighten Parlby Creek was started at the mouth of the creek. By 1989, it had progressed upstream of Spotted Lake. Control structures will allow annual backflooding of hay meadows at the landowners' request and will provide habitat for pike spawning. Other structures at Spotted Lake can be operated to maximize pike spawning habitat and waterfowl brood production without interfering with hay harvesting (Alta. Envir. 1985).

Groundwater inflow to Buffalo Lake is significant in maintaining the water balance. Areas of artesian upwelling of groundwater are evident at the west end of the lake and along the north shore of Secondary Bay, as well as within the lake (Gabert 1975; Norecol Envir. Consult. Ltd. 1984). In 1980, Alberta Environment established a network of wells and piezometers on the land surrounding Buffalo Lake. After 2 years of observation, they estimated the annual groundwater inflow to Buffalo Lake to be about 6.0 x 106 m3 (Clare and Ko 1982). Actual measurements with seepage meters on the bottom of the Main Bay of Buffalo Lake were taken in 1986 and 1987 by the University of Alberta (Shaw and Prepas 1989[a]; 1989[b]). Groundwater inflow inflow rates were found to be very high (8.7 to 16.4 x 10-8 m/second), from 2 to 24 times greater than that in 8 other Alberta lakes surveyed. The study estimated that the annual volume of groundwater inflow to Buffalo Lake equalled the annual volume of surface inflow (approximately 13 x 106 m3/year). Subsequent evaluation of the hydrogeologic regime, undertaken as part of an Environmental Impact Assessment of Buffalo Lake stabilization, has resulted in an estimate of 6.2 x 106 m3/year of annual groundwater inflow (Envir. Mgt. Assoc. 1990).

There has been no surface outflow from Buffalo Lake since 1929 (Alta. Envir. 1979). The natural sill elevation of the outlet is approximately 782.0 m, well above lake levels since 1950. Groundwater outflow is indicated, as the salinity of the lake is not as high as would be expected if evaporation were the only route for water to leave the lake (Norecol Envir. Consult. Ltd. 1984; Crosby 1987), however, no areas have been found where water in Buffalo Lake seeps downward into underlying geologic material (Envir. Mgt. Assoc. 1990).

In 1983, a study of water mixing within Buffalo Lake concluded that the water in each bay circulated in a clockwise direction. Mixing between the bays occurred when there was a southwest or northeast wind (about one day in three). It was estimated that water entering Parlby Bay moved into Main Bay within a month (Norecol Envir. Consult. Ltd. 1984).

The water level of Buffalo Lake has been monitored since 1955 (FIGURE 3). The level dropped 1.9 m from a high in 1955 (781.4 m) to the historic low in 1964 (779.5 m). After 1968, levels rose until 1975 and slowly dropped until 1988. The largest change in one year occurred in 1974, a year of deep snowfall and heavy spring rain, when the lake rose 1.1 m. Because the lake basin slopes so gently, even small changes in lake levels cause extensive changes in beach width or flood nearshore developments (FIGURE 4). Changes in lake levels complicate recreational and cottage development; in the 1970s, demand for lake level stabilization led to extensive engineering and environmental feasibility studies by Alberta Environment (Lin 1979; Alta. Envir. 1979; 1982; Haag and Noton 1981; IBI Group 1981; Acres Consult. Serv. Ltd. 1982; Clare and Ko 1982; Hardy Assoc. Ltd. 1982; Norecol Envir. Consult. Ltd. 1984; Crosby 1987). The only feasible option from an engineering perspective was to pump water from the Red Deer River to Buffalo Lake. The studies raised concerns that the water quality of the lake would change and algal and macrophyte growth would increase if relatively nutrient-rich, less saline river water were mixed into the lake (Crosby 1987). A subsequent evaluation (Alta. Envir. 1989) predicted that nutrient loads would not increase significantly with the addition of Red Deer River water, but that salinity levels would decrease and algal biomass would increase. In late 1989, Alberta Environment called for a formal Environmental Impact Assessment of the Buffalo Lake stabilization project. The assessment, to be completed in March 1990, will include an evaluation of the effect that potential water quality changes could have on macrophyte and algal growth (Envir. Mgt. Assoc. 1990).

Water Quality

The water quality of Buffalo Lake was monitored from 1980 to 1983 as part of Alberta Environment's investigation of the feasibility of lake level stabilization (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]; Crosby 1987). Groundwater quality was monitored as part of this program, as well (Clare and Ko 1982; Norecol Envir. Consult. Ltd. 1984). The lake's water quality has been monitored jointly since 1984 by Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]), and in 1983, 1986 and 1987 by the University of Alberta as part of a program to determine factors controlling algal growth in saline lakes (Bierhuizen and Prepas n.d.; 1985; Prepas et al. n.d.).

Buffalo Lake is a well-buffered, moderately saline lake; its dominant ions are sodium, sulphate and bicarbonate. The salinity and the concentration of most ions in the lake increase along a gradient from west to east (TABLE 3). Only one ion, calcium, was higher in Parlby Bay, to the west, than in Secondary Bay, which in turn had higher calcium values than those in Main Bay (TABLE 3). The gradient can be attributed to the different sources of water in Buffalo Lake. Water quality in Parlby Bay is strongly influenced by inflowing Parlby Creek. The ionic composition of Main Bay, on the other hand, is very different from Parlby Creek but is similar to the groundwater in the area. The ionic composition of the water in Secondary Bay is also similar to the groundwater, but is somewhat diluted by Parlby Creek inflow.

Buffalo Lake is not a simple "evaporating pan" despite the absence of surface outflow to provide flushing. Rather, the salinity of the lake is not much different than it was 3,000 years ago. A 1982 study examined a sediment core containing pollen grains deposited during the period from 7,400 years ago to the present (Hickman et al. 1983). Pollen deposited in the most recent 3,000 years indicated that the water has been less saline for the last 3,000 years than it was between 7,400 and 3,000 years BP.

Buffalo Lake is shallow and exposed to winds; it is well-mixed vertically and usually is not thermally stratified in summer (FIGURE 5). The Main Bay, however, might stratify briefly during prolonged calm weather. Secondary Bay is likely well-mixed throughout the open-water season (FIGURE 6).

In winter, dissolved oxygen concentrations in Main Bay are high (over 6 mg/L) down to a depth of 4 m. Below this, there is some oxygen depletion but anoxic conditions have not been found. In winter, dissolved oxygen concentrations in Secondary Bay are surprisingly high and there is no evidence of oxygen depletion near the sediment-water interface. These low oxygen depletion rates are in contrast to the rapid consumption of dissolved oxygen in other shallow but more productive lakes on the prairies.

A vertical salinity gradient is evident in Main Bay in the winter. Profiles taken between January and the end of March consistently indicated that the conductivity at the bottom was 100 to 500 µS/cm greater than near the top (Sloman 1983; Alta. Envir. 1984).

Buffalo Lake is mesotrophic, although the total phosphorus concentration in the lake is moderately high. The phosphorus gradient from west to east (TABLE 4) is opposite to the gradient for most other ions (TABLE 3). During the open-water season, the highest average total phosphorus concentration is in Parlby Bay (84 µg/L in 1983), the next highest is in Secondary Bay (76 µg/L), and the lowest is in Main Bay (59 µg/L). Chlorophyll a concentrations tend to be higher in Secondary Bay than in Main Bay (TABLE 4, FIGURE 7). Both total phosphorus and chlorophyll a concentrations increase over the summer to maxima in August and September. Even in September when the water turns murky green, chlorophyll a concentrations are consistently lower than would be expected from the total phosphorus concentrations. A 1983 study, which included Buffalo Lake and 17 other moderately saline Alberta lakes, found a definite inhibition of algal production in lakes where the specific conductivity was over 1,000 µS/cm (Bierhuizen and Prepas 1985). This inhibition became more pronounced as salinity increased, and was related to high levels of most of the dominant ions, including sulphate. A subsequent study indicated that molybdate to sulphate ratios might explain the depressed phytoplankton biomass in lakes such as Buffalo (Marino et al. 1990).

Biological Characteristics


The algae in the Main Bay of Buffalo Lake was sampled on 11 September 1972 (Crosby 1972), monthly from June 1973 to August 1974 (Hickman n.d.), from January to March 1976 (Heinrichs 1976), on 29 August 1986 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]) and in July and August 1987 (TABLE 5). During the years sampled, the late-summer bloom was consistently dominated by blue-green algae (Cyanophyta). Anabaena flos-aquae was the most abundant species in most years; the codominant species were Microspora tumidula in 1972, Synechocystis sp. in 1973, Oocystis parva in 1974, and Gomphosphaeria aponina and G. lacustris in 1987. Some interesting species of algae have been reported in Buffalo Lake: Chaetoceros elmorei, which is often the most abundant diatom, is indicative of brackish water, and Characiopsis spinifer, a chlorophyte, was found for the first time in Alberta in a January 1976 sample.

Aquatic macrophytes were surveyed at 405 locations in Buffalo Lake between 15 July and 4 August 1981 (TABLE 6). In Main Bay, rooted macrophytes grew to a depth of 3.5 m. Widgeon grass (Ruppia occidentalis) and Sago pondweed (Potamogeton pectinatus) were the only species to flourish. The dominance of these salt-tolerant species and the absence of species typical of fresh water such as northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens) and Richardson pondweed (P. richardsonii) reflects the high salinity and high concentrations of bicarbonate and sulphate ions in the Main Bay. Large-sheath pondweed (Potamogeton vaginatus) occurred occasionally and stonewort (Chara sp.) rarely. Common great bulrush (Scirpus validus) was sparsely distributed, mostly in sheltered bays on the north and west shores.

In Secondary Bay, plants grew to the maximum depth of the bay (2.5 m). Species composition in the eastern portion of the bay was typical of saline water, and was similar to that in Main Bay. However, there were some plants with a lower tolerance to salinity, such as common bladderwort (Utricularia vulgaria), star duckweed (Lemna trisulca) and northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens), which were found in the bay nearest the Narrows where the water is less saline. Boat travel was restricted by the density of plants in the shallow areas of some bays, especially towards the Narrows where the water salinity is lower than in the eastern portion of the bay.

In Parlby Bay, macrophytes grew throughout the bay and the community was typical of fresh water. There was no widgeon grass and this was the only bay in which Richardson pondweed, small-leaf pondweed (P. pusillus) and coontail (Ceratophyllum demersum) were found. Northern watermilfoil and stonewort were much denser here than at the eastern end of the Narrows. Boat traffic was severely impeded in most of the bay.


There are no data available for zooplankton in Buffalo Lake. Benthic invertebrates were sampled on 20 June 1967. Midge larvae (Chironomus sp.) were the dominant group (Hunt 1970).


Buffalo Lake supports only four species of fish: northern pike, burbot, white sucker and brook stickleback. All of these species are native to the lake and are tolerant of high salinity and alkalinity. Fish and Wildlife Division stocked the lake with yellow perch in the 1950s and with walleye as eyed-eggs in 1960; neither species survived (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Hunt 1970; Buchwald 1976).

The alkalinity of the water in Main Bay (979 mg/L) and Secondary Bay (846 mg/L) approaches or exceeds the limit for survival of pike eggs and fry (950 mg/L). Studies indicate that most of the pike from Buffalo Lake move west through the Narrows to Parlby Bay, then continue up Parlby Creek to spawn in flooded hay meadows. Some spawning occurs in Parlby Bay. Winter fish kills are not common in Buffalo Lake; a partial one was reported in the area of the Narrows in May 1961 (Hunt 1970).

Test netting in the Main Bay in 1967 and 1976 indicated an increase in the size of the pike population over this period. In 1967, 1 pike was caught per 18.3 m of net set; in 1976, 1 pike was caught per 9.1 m of net. The pike caught in these two years were weighed, measured and their age determined. The pike caught in 1976 were significantly smaller at all ages than fish caught in 1967. The catch of white suckers exceeded that of pike in both years (Buchwald 1976).

It is hoped that an Alberta Environment project to channelize Parlby Creek will have a beneficial effect on pike in Buffalo Lake by facilitating access to Spotted Lake for spawning. Control structures can be operated to hold water in Spotted Lake until fry have hatched and are an adequate size to travel to Buffalo Lake (Alta. Envir. 1985).


In central Alberta, Buffalo Lake is second only to Beaverhill Lake in its importance for waterfowl brood production, moulting and fall staging, and for nesting of colonial birds (Can. Wild. Serv. 1979; Hardy Assoc. Ltd. 1982). Breeding surveys were conducted in 1976 and 1981 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.); staging surveys were conducted by Canadian Wildlife Service annually from 1960 to 1969, by Ducks Unlimited (Canada) in 1979 (Ducks Unitd. (Can.) n.d.) and by Fish and Wildlife Division in 1981 (Anderson 1981; Hardy Assoc. Ltd. 1982).

Production of ducklings in Buffalo Lake is estimated to be 7,000/year. Dabbling ducks include Mallards, Pintails, Gadwalls, American Widgeons, Blue-winged Teal, Green-winged Teal and Shovellers; diving ducks include Lesser Scaup, Redheads, Canvasbacks, Ring-necked Ducks, Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye and White-winged Scoters. Colonies of Great Blue Herons, Ring-billed Gulls, California Gulls, Forester's Terns, Common Terns and Eared Grebes also nest at Buffalo Lake. The Ring-billed Gull colony is one of the three largest colonies in Alberta, and Buffalo Lake is one of only three lakes in Alberta known to support a colony of Forester's Terns (Salt and Wilk 1972). In the autumn, up to 17,000 ducks, 3,500 swans and 12,000 geese (mostly Canada Geese and Snow Geese) use Buffalo Lake for staging before migration. No shooting of migratory game birds is permitted on Buffalo Lake or within 1 km of its shoreline.

Avian botulism has been a problem in Buffalo Lake for many years, especially in the bay that extends toward the town of Bashaw (Barnhard and Russell 1981). The most recent outbreak, in 1981, infected and killed hundreds of waterfowl and required intensive cleanup by Fish and: Wildlife Division to restrict further spread.

Muskrats are plentiful in Buffalo Lake, especially along the north and west shores. The area supports numerous white-tailed deer; mule deer are less common and moose are occasionally seen. A Buck for Wildlife project is in place on 228 ha on the south shore of Secondary Bay to preserve and enhance habitat for waterfowl, Ring-necked Pheasants and other wildlife (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

J.M. Crosby


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