Bonnie Lake

The contents of this online version has not been altered or modified from the original 1990 publication. It is reasonable to assume that much of the data e.g. water levels, camp grounds/boat launches, etc. is out of date. For updated or additional information on any of the lakes in this atlas please go to Environment Alberta's water web site.

Basic Info
Map Sheets73L/4
Lat / Long54.1500000, -111.8666667
54°8'N, 111°52'W
Area3.77 km2
Max depth6.1 m
Mean depth3.1 m
Dr. Basin Area49.6 km2
Dam, WeirNone
Drainage BasinNorth Saskatchewan River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishNorthern Pike, Yellow Perch
Trophic StatusHyper-Eutrophic
TP x95 µg/L
CHLORO x31.5 µg/L
TDS x217 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Bonnie Lake is a popular recreational lake located in the County of Smoky Lake. It is situated approximately 130 km northeast of the city of Edmonton and 5 km northeast of the village of Vilna, which is the closest population centre. To drive to the lake from Edmonton, take Highway 28 until you are 5.5 km past the turnoff for Vilna (FIGURE 1), then turn north and drive 3 km to Bonnie Lake Provincial Recreation Area on the south side of the lake (FIGURE 2). Access to other parts of the lakeshore is provided by three other roads that branch north from Highway 28.

The origin of the lake's name is not known. Before settlers arrived, the Bonnie Lake area was inhabited by Cree Indians who followed the buffalo. Settlers of English, Polish, Ukrainian and American descent began farming land in the region in 1904. Vilna was established in 1919 when the railroad arrived, and was incorporated in 1923 (Co. Smoky L. 1968).

Bonnie Lake Provincial Recreation Area is operated by Alberta Recreation and Parks. It is open from the Victoria Day weekend to Thanksgiving Day for camping and year-round for day use. There are 45 campsites, pump water, a beach, a boat launch, a picnic shelter and a playground (Alta. Hotel Assoc. 1989). In addition to the provincial recreation area, there are informal campsites maintained by the County of Smoky Lake on the southeast shore (FIGURE 2). The only other public recreational facility is a village of Vilna ball park and informal campground located on leased Crown land immediately southwest of the recreation area (Bonnie L. Plan Commit. 1987[a]).

Scouts Canada (Northern Region) also holds a recreational lease on Crown land on the south shore of the lake (FIGURE 2). Their facility operates year-round and consists of a campground and leader-training facility. The remainder of the Crown land is located north of the lake; the portion that fronts on the lake has protective notation, but there is no road access to the area. The portion farther north is held under grazing and farm development leases (Bonnie L. Plan Commit. 1987[a]).

In 1984, Alberta Municipal Affairs recommended that Bonnie Lake be designated for intensive recreational use (Alta. Mun. Aff. 1984). In response to increasing development pressures, a lake management plan was completed in 1986 and an area structure plan was finalized and adopted in 1987 (Bonnie L. Plan Commit. 1987[a]; 1987[b]). The lake management plan determines the development capacity of Bonnie Lake, provides land-use planning policies for the lake, and determines ways to minimize environmental impacts and conflicts in the use of the lakeshore. It also recommends preferred lake uses and ways to minimize lake-user conflicts. In 1989, the only country residential development on the lakeshore was Bonnie Lake Resort, located on the south shore. In 1987, 75 of the 111 lots in the resort had been purchased, 36 residences had been built and 26 sites had trailers (Bonnie L. Plan Commit. 1987[a]). In addition, several single residences were located on the shore.

The water in Bonnie Lake turns green during summer. The extensive beds of aquatic vegetation present in shallow areas provide nesting habitat for several species of waterfowl. The main water-based activities at the lake are motor boating and water skiing. Over most of the lake, there are no boating restrictions, but in posted areas such as the designated swimming area, all boats are prohibited (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). Until 1987, the lake supported a popular sport fishery for northen pike and yellow perch, but after severe winterkills in 1987 and 1988, the stocking of yellow perch was discontinued for an indefinite period. Bonnie Lake's outlet stream is closed to sport fishing for a period during April and May each year (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). The main land-based recreational activities near the lake are camping, picnicking and golfing.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The drainage basin surrounding Bonnie Lake is about 13 times the size of the lake (Tables 1, 2). Water drains into the lake mostly from the northwest via an unnamed creek (FIGURE 1) and diffuse runoff. Groundwater also plays an unquantified, but likely important, role in the lake's water balance. The outlet, a tributary of Stoney Creek, flows intermittently in springtime and after major rainstorms (Babin and Trew 1987).

Most of the drainage basin is rolling morainal plain. It is characterized by undulating to gently rolling topography that features minor ridges and knobs intermixed with many wet depressions and small peat bogs. A small portion of the watershed west of the lake is undulating morainal plain, which is relatively level. The main soils over most of the drainage basin are moderately well-drained Orthic and Dark Gray Luvisols of a loam type. These soils developed on fine loamy, weakly or strongly calcareous glacial till. Poorly to very poorly drained Organic and Gleysolic soils are located in depressional to level areas, particularly north of the western half of the lake. Chernozemic soils are confined to the southern and northwestern portions of the watershed, and Eluviated Eutric Brunisols are common on well-drained to rapidly drained sands in the southwestern and northern portions (Kocaoglu 1975; Twardy and Reid 1984).

The small portion of the drainage basin south of the lake is part of the Aspen Subregion of the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion. The remainder of the drainage basin is part of the Dry Mixedwood Subregion of the Boreal Mixedwood Ecoregion. The main tree species in both subregions is trembling aspen. In the Boreal Mixedwood Ecoregion, the subordinate species include jack pine on rapidly drained to well-drained Eutric Brunisols, white spruce on imperfectly drained Gray Luvisols and Gleysols, black spruce and willows on poorly drained Organics and Gleysols, and sedges on very poorly drained organic soils (Strong and Leggat 1981).

Almost 70% of Bonnie Lake's drainage basin is forested and less than 2% is cleared for residential development (FIGURE 1). Thirty per cent of the watershed, mainly south of the lake and in the central portion of the drainage area, is used for agriculture, mainly livestock grazing, forage crops and coarse grains (Twardy and Reid 1984). Some parcels of land in the northwest and east that were once farmed were abandoned and recolonized by trembling aspen. In some areas, the preglacial sands and gravels that are present along a meltwater channel west of Bonnie Lake have been excavated by commercial operations.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Bonnie Lake is a shallow, fairly small lake with a surface area of less than 4 km2 and a mean depth of about 3 m (TABLE 2). The lake bed consists of two shallow basins with gradually sloping contours (FIGURE 2). The deepest spot in the lake (6.1 m) is located near the provincial recreation area. Numerous arms and bays contribute to a relatively long shoreline. An arm of the lake on the southeast side was isolated from the lake proper for 30 years by a farm road that acted as a dam. In 1979, a culvert was installed, reconnecting the two water bodies so that the arm was no longer stagnant (Bascor Devel. Ltd. 1981).

Bonnie Lake is the municipal water source for the residents of Vilna. The village has been licenced since 1969 to withdraw up to 61,674 m3/year of drinking water from the lake (Alta. Envir. n.d.[d]).

The elevation of Bonnie Lake has been monitored since 1965 (FIGURE 3). The highest level (639.76 m) was recorded in 1967, and the lowest level (638.45 m) was recorded in 1988; this is a maximum fluctuation of 1.31 m. Generally, lake elevations from late 1981 to 1989 have been lower than those in the previous 15 years. Runoff data for Waskatenau Creek indicate that Bonnie Lake has received only 48% of the expected median inflow volume since 1981, and these drought conditions are responsible for the low lake levels (O'Leary and Hay 1988). Changes in the lake's surface area and capacity (up to an elevation of 639.02 m) are illustrated in Figure 4.

The shoreline and nearshore areas of Bonnie Lake were studied by Alberta Forestry, Lands and Wildlife during 1988 (O'Leary and Hay 1988). The study evaluated the types of shoreline around the lake and examined the impact of fluctuating water levels on aquatic vegetation and erosion. The most common shoreline, which represented 44% of the area studied, was described as permanent wetland with little or no relief, water depths of less than 1 m, and balsam poplar and willow communities along the shore. This type of shoreline is most common along the north side and at the east and west ends of the lake. Because of the shallow water depth, large mud flats along these areas are often exposed in the spring and fall and the zone of emergent and submergent vegetation is extensive (30- to 50-m wide). The emergent zone was defined as the area that was covered by less than 0.5 m of water for the entire growing season. The second most common shoreline type, which represented 33% of the lake edge, was found mostly along the southern side. It was described as cobbly sand beach, and included the artificially-made beach at the provincial recreation area. Cobbly sandy beach is characterized by gradual to abrupt upland banks and a zone of emergent vegetation that is generally less than 10-m wide, except at the recreation area, where vegetation has been removed. The third shoreline type accounts for 21% of the lake edge, mainly along the northern and southeastern shores. It is characterized by sandy beaches and fairly abrupt but short upland banks. The zone of vegetation along this area is 25- to 40-m wide, the zone of submergent vegetation is less than 5-m wide and the maximum water depth within the emergent zone is less than 0.1 m. The fourth shoreline type was found along only 2% of the lake margin, and was characterized by a cobble/gravel shoreline and no emergent vegetation.

Water Quality

A water quality study of Bonnie Lake was conducted by Alberta Environment during the open-water periods of 1983 and 1989 and in March of 1984 and 1989. As well, samples were taken once each in July and September of 1988 as part of a study of phosphorus release from the sediments of 19 Alberta lakes (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]; Shaw 1989).

Bonnie Lake has fresh, well-buffered water. The dominant ions are bicarbonate, magnesium and calcium (TABLE 3). Bonnie Lake displays characteristics common to other shallow Alberta lakes: in the spring, the water column warms rapidly, throughout the summer, the lake is weakly thermally stratified most of the time, and in the fall, the water column cools rapidly (FIGURE 5). The lake is usually well oxygenated during the open-water season. In 1983, for example, dissolved oxygen concentrations generally exceeded 9 mg/L, except for a brief period from late July to mid-August (FIGURE 6). During that time the lake was thermally stratified and the water over the sediments became anoxic. In the winter, the entire water column may become anoxic, as in March of both 1984 and 1989. Anoxic conditions during winter have been reported in other years, and have resulted in partial to extensive winterkills of fish in 1969,1982,1987, 1988 and 1989 (Sullivan 1989).

The trophic status of Bonnie Lake is difficult to categorize, because the maximum concentration of chlorophyll a has varied greatly from 1983 to 1989. In 1983, the lake was mesotrophic: chlorophyll a reached a maximum concentration of 18 5g/L in September and total phosphorus reached a maximum concentration of 48 5g/L in August (FIGURE 7). The increase in chlorophyll a over the summer indicated phosphorus release from the sediments when the bottom water was anoxic. In 1988, Bonnie Lake was hyper-eutrophic. The highest chlorophyll a concentration recorded that year was 145 5g/L in September and the highest total phosphorus concentration recorded was 268 5g/L, also in September. In 1989, data available from mid-May to early August suggested that the lake was eutrophic. The highest chlorophyll a concentration was 54 5g/L, recorded in mid-May, and the highest total phosphorus concentrations were 112 5g/L, recorded in mid-May, and 113 5g/L, recorded in late June. The average Secchi transparency has also declined, from 2.7 m in 1983 to 1.1 m in 1989 (TABLE 4). The causes of these fluctuations in trophic status are unknown, but as of 1989, Alberta Environment began an investigation into the potential reasons for the changes.

The loading of total phosphorus to Bonnie Lake from external sources is estimated to be 1,077 kg/year, or 0.29 g/m2 of lake surface (TABLE 5). The largest external source is runoff from agricultural land, which accounts for 55% of the total load. Other external sources are runoff from forested land (26%), runoff from urban areas (6%), sewage from cottages and camps (3%) and precipitation and dustfall (10%). The internal loading of total phosphorus from the sediments was calculated from 1983 data, and was estimated to be 271 kg/year (Trew 1989). This figure is likely to have increased significantly in 1988 and 1989.

Biological Characteristics


The phytoplankton community in Bonnie Lake was studied approximately monthly by Alberta Environment during the open-water season in 1983 (TABLE 6). Biomass was low throughout the season, ranging from a minimum of 0.04 mg/L in late May to a maximum of 2.63 mg/L in late October.

The species of algae that dominated the phytoplankton community in 1983 consisted mostly of golden-brown algae (Chrysophyta), cryptophytes, and diatoms (Bacillariophyta). Species of Cryptomonas were especially prominent in spring and fall, probably because they compete well under low-light conditions. Other common algal species included the colonial forms Dinobryon and Asterionella. Blue-green algae, mostly Anabaena flos-aquae (Cyanophyta), dominated the algal biomass only in mid-August and early November.

A brief survey of aquatic macrophytes was conducted by Fish and Wildlife Division in 1977 (Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1977) and by Alberta Forestry, Lands and Wildlife in 1988 (O'Leary and Hay 1988). During both studies, abundant beds of cattails (Typha latifolia) and bulrushes (Scirpus spp.) were found throughout shallow areas along the shoreline (FIGURE 8). Water lilies (Nuphar sp.) and submergent macrophytes, including northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum ex-albescens) and pondweeds (Potamogeton spp.), were also common.


No data are available on the zooplankton in Bonnie Lake. In a 1969 survey of benthic invertebrates, Fish and Wildlife Division biologists noted that scuds (Amphipoda) and midge larvae (Chironomidae) were present in abundance, but no detailed data were collected (Holmes and Abraham 1969).


The fish community in Bonnie Lake has included northern pike, yellow perch and spottail shiner, and at times, the lake has supported a popular summer sport fishery. At present, Bonnie Lake is managed for recreational fishing only. There is no domestic fishery, and a commercial fishery for yellow perch and walleye operated for only one year, in 1945; this was the last year that walleye were reported in the lake (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Sullivan 1989).

Bonnie Lake is very shallow, and frequently becomes anoxic under ice cover. Partial to extensive winterkills were reported in 1969, 1982, 1987 and 1988, and winterkill conditions were recorded in 1989. After the extensive winterkill in 1987, the lake was stocked with perch and spottail shiners. Northern pike are not stocked-if the population has survived, it has done so by natural reproduction only. After the next extensive winterkill occurred in the late winter of 1988, the lake was not restocked. As of 1989, the status of the fish populations was uncertain and there were no plans to restock the lake in the near future (Sullivan 1989).


The extensive macrophyte beds in Bonnie Lake provide good habitat for Mallards, American Widgeons, Lesser Scaup, Redheads, Black Terns, American Coots, Franklin's Gulls, Common Loons and Red-necked Grebes. Great Blue Herons and Ospreys have also been sighted on the lake (Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1977).

M.E. Bradford


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-----. n.d.[c]. Tech. Serv. Div., Surv. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

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