Wabamun Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83G/7, 9, 10
Lat / Long53.5500000, -114.6000000
53°32'N, 114°35'W
Area81.8 km2
Max depth11 m
Mean depth6.3 m
Dr. Basin Area259 km2
Dam, WeirNone
Drainage BasinNorth Saskatchewan River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishNorthern Pike, Lake Whitefish, Walleye, Yellow Perch
Trophic StatusEutrophic
TP x32 µg/L
CHLORO x11.5 µg/L
TDS x248 mg/L
87
Photo credit: unknown

Introduction

Wabamun Lake, one of the best-known and most-studied lakes in Alberta, lies 60 km west of the city of Edmonton on Highway 16. From Edmonton, the first turnoff to the lake provides access to the summer village of Kapasiwin and Wabamun Lake Provincial Park on Moonlight Bay (FIGURE 1). The other main access points are reached by turnoffs to the village of Wabamun on the north shore and to Seba Beach on the west end of the lake. Local roads run along much of the lakeshore; on the south side, a gravel road parallels the lakeshore beside active coal mines.

Wabamun is a Cree word meaning "mirror" (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976). The lake was once called White Whale Lake for the large whitefish caught in its waters; this name appears on maps from the late 1800s (Hills of Hope Hist. Commit. 1976). The lake's name reverted back to the original Cree name sometime near the turn of the century.

The Paul Band Reserve is situated on the eastern edge of the lake. By 1876, the Stoney Indian Nation had separated into smaller bands; one of them, the Paul Band, hunted in the area northwest of Edmonton. They signed Treaty No. 6 in 1876 and settled on the shores of Wabamun Lake. In 1984, the population of the band was 875 (Alta. Native Aff. 1986).

The community of Wabamun was established in 1912. Cottage subdivisions were built at Lakeview on Moonlight Bay and at Kapasiwin; these became two of the first summer villages in Alberta. The railway that passed through Wabamun ran excursion trains on weekends, and visitors were accommodated at a large hotel.

The first coal mines in the watershed began as underground operations in 1910 and as strip mines in 1948. Two power generating plants have been built on Wabamun Lake by TransAlta Utilities Corporation to take advantage of the abundant supply of local coal. The Wabamun plant, near the village of Wabamun, began operation in 1956, and the Sundance plant, on the opposite shore, began in 1970. A third plant, Keephills, is located just outside the watershed southeast of the lake, but its cooling pond lies within the watershed boundary. The Wabamun plant uses lake water for cooling, and heated effluent is returned to the lake via a canal. As a result, a large portion of Kapasiwin Bay remains ice-free in winter. The Sundance plant also used lake water for cooling when it began operation, but now uses a large cooling pond near the lakeshore. Make-up water for this pond is pumped from the North Saskatchewan River, and blow-down water is returned to the river. The effect of the two power plants near the lakeshore, their associated coal mines and the heated effluent on water quality in Wabamun Lake has stimulated much controversy (Reid, Crowther Partners Ltd. 1973; Noton 1974; Beak Consult. Ltd. 1980; Habgood 1983).

The popular opinion that the lake has poor water quality probably stems from the nuisance growth of an aquatic plant called Canada waterweed or Elodea (Elodea canadensis), which was not observed in the lake before 1968. It became the dominant aquatic plant in the eastern end by the early 1970s, and snarled fishing lines, wound in propellers, and washed onto beaches. The cooling water discharges from both power plants were implicated as the cause, although this was never confirmed. By 1975, the Sundance effluent was diverted to a large cooling pond near the lake, and in 1977, the Elodea population began to decline. Now it is rare in the lake except near the Wabamun plant cooling water discharge canal and two small areas at Seba Beach (Terrestrial Aquat. Envir. Managers, Ltd. 1987). TransAlta Utilities Corporation is required to cut aquatic vegetation in a designated area of Kapasiwin Bay.

There is abundant natural aquatic vegetation along shorelines and in bays, but the water in Wabamun Lake is often fairly clear, and blue-green algal blooms are rare. Wabamun Lake Provincial Park, located on Moonlight Bay, is a focus of activity on warm summer weekends. The boat launch at the park is one of the best on the lake, although sailboats with tall masts cannot pass under the CN railway trestle across the mouth of the bay. The park has several campgrounds with a total of 318 campsites, extensive day-use areas, showers, hiking trails and a sandy swimming beach. It is open in winter for day-use (Alta. Hotel Assoc. 1989). There are commercially operated campgrounds at the west end of the lake, and the Ernest Poole Scout camp on the north shore offers camping to nonmembers by reservation. The County of Parkland operates three day-use areas on the north shore: Ascot Beach, Rich's Point and Coal Point. All have picnic areas, but only Ascot Beach and Rich's Point have boat launches. There are boat launches, piers and day-use areas at Seba Beach and at the village of Wabamun. The village also offers a small campground north of the lake access.

Sport fishing is one of the most popular activities on the lake. In summer, fishing is often excellent for northern pike, and increasingly so for walleye. In winter, ice fishing for lake whitefish draws hundreds of anglers on mild weekends, and large pike may be taken from the inlet and outlet canals at the Wabamun power plant. A few fishermen launch small boats in the outlet canal in winter to fish the open water created by the heated effluent. Yellow perch are also in the lake, but they are the least important of the game fish because of their small size and low numbers. There are no special sport fishing regulations applicable to Wabamun Lake, but provincial limits apply. The lake's inlet creeks and outlet are closed to fishing for a period in spring (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

Wabamun Lake, with three sailing clubs, is an important sailing lake, perhaps because of the strong winds that sweep down the lake at times. Wind surfing is also common near the village of Wabamun and near Seba Beach. Other activities include power boating, water skiing and swimming. In certain areas of the lake, power-driven boats are subject to a maximum speed of 12 km/hour (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). The Naval Reserve of the Canadian Armed Forces keeps a tugboat on the lake in the inlet canal at the Wabamun Power Plant. It is used for training in basic seamanship and engineering for recruits and officers (Pelletier 1989).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The drainage basin surrounding Wabamun Lake is about 3 times larger than the area of the lake (TABLE 1, FIGURE 1). About half of the land in the basin is cleared or used for agriculture, particularly for hay, barley, forage oats and cattle production (Reid, Crowther Partners Ltd. 1973). Coal is strip-mined extensively north and south of the lake by companies associated with TransAlta Utilities Corporation to supply the coal-fired generating plants located in the basin. As coal excavation moves west, the mined-out land is reclaimed, primarily for agricultural purposes.

Cottage development is dense compared to that on many Alberta lakes. In 1981, there were 1,513 developed lots around the lakeshore, excluding those in the village of Wabamun, of which 1,071 were occupied. About 10% of these had permanent residences (Andries and Schinkel 1981). Half of these cottages are within the summer villages of Seba Beach, Kapasiwin, Point Alison, Lakeview and Betula Beach (FIGURE 1); the remaining cottages are under the jurisdiction of the County of Parkland. The village of Wabamun had a population of 589 in 1987 (Ivan 1988). Many people living in the village work at the Wabamun power plant or its coal mines. Services such as a gas station, grocery store, hotel, restaurant and hardware store are available in the village. Another location on the lake for some of these services is Seba Beach, and there is a small store at Kapasiwin.

The terrain in the watershed is gently rolling to undulating, and hills to the south of the lake rise to an elevation of 844 m. Fallis, or Coal Point, in the Fallis area, rises from the water's edge as a vertical cliff. The native vegetation is dominated by trembling aspen, balsam poplar and willow, with white spruce in undisturbed areas. Coal mining is gradually altering the landscape in the watershed, but reclamation efforts include recontouring and the return of native vegetation, as well as agricultural development.

Surficial deposits to the south and west of the lake are discontinuous glacial till or bedrock of Paleocene age. Where till occurs, it contains a large proportion of bedrock material. Coal is mined in this area; coal seams occur in the lowermost portion of the Paskapoo Formation or in the uppermost Cretaceous bedrock. In areas along the shoreline where coal outcrops, beach sands are black. To the north of the lake, till thickness generally exceeds a depth of 2 m. Surficial deposits to the east of the lake consist of fine-grained glaciolacustrine materials. Bedrock underlying this area is of Cretaceous age, whereas to the south and west of the lake the underlying bedrock is of Paleocene age (Andriashek et al. 1979).

Soils in the watershed are predominantly Gray Luvisols developed on till; a few small areas of Organic soils are present (Lindsay et al. 1968). The Luvisolic soils have moderately severe to severe limitations for agriculture, mainly because the soil structure is undesirable or they absorb water slowly (Can. Dept. Reg. Econ. Expansion 1972).

There are at least 35 drainage courses that convey runoff to the lake. Most of these flow only during snowmelt in spring and during summer rainstorms, but several on the north side have a continuous base flow from groundwater. The seven largest streams account for about 70% of the total volume of runoff to the lake (Mitchell 1985). Mine drainage enters the lake on the north side after settling in several ponds. On the south side, mine drainage enters the Sundance cooling pond, which drains to the North Saskatchewan River. The lake's outlet, Wabamun Creek, flows intermittently toward the North Saskatchewan River.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Wabamun Lake is a large, shallow lake that is 19.2-km long and 6.6-km wide (TABLE 2, FIGURE 2). Its orientation with the prevailing wind and its long fetch are a great advantage to sailors, but wave action is heavy at times.

The bottom of the lake is fairly flat, with a gradual slope toward the deepest area at the western end. In comparison, the slopes along the edges of the lake are steep. Popular opinion is that a very deep hole is present off of Fallis (Coal) Point because a sailboat sank and was lost in the area, but such a depression was not revealed during the 1980 hydrographic survey.

The littoral zone in Wabamun Lake extends to the 5-m depth contour (Haag and Gorham 1979) and includes 31% of the lake bottom (FIGURE 3). This is a somewhat deeper littoral area than that in most central Alberta lakes. Sandy areas are found at depths less than 2 m, with soft clay or organic sediments over most of the lake bottom (R.L. & L. Envir. Serv. Ltd. 1987). Hamilton and Reynoldson (1981) found that the highest percentage of organic matter (41%) was in sediments collected from the west end at depths of 10 m and the lowest percentage (9%) was in sandy sediments from near the Sundance area at a depth of 4 m.

There are natural beaches along much of the shoreline, but emergent vegetation restricts their use. The most popular beaches for swimming are the artificially-made one at the provincial park and the natural one at Seba Beach.

The water level of Wabamun Lake has long been the subject of concern and controversy among lake users. Water levels have been recorded continuously since 1933, with additional records back to 1915 (FIGURE 4). From 1915 to 1987, the range in fluctuation was about 1.4 m, with an annual fluctuation of about 1 m. Since 1912, a number of control structures designed to regulate water levels have been built at the outlet and subsequently destroyed. As of 1989, investigations were under way by Alberta Environment to determine a suitable elevation for a new control structure.

Water Quality

The water quality of Wabamun Lake has been studied off and on since 1968. Investigations included the effects of the thermal discharges from the two power plants (Nursall et al. 1972; Gallup and Hickman 1973; 1975; Beak Consult. Ltd. 1980); the ion chemistry (Schwartz and Gallup 1978); and groundwater (Crowe and Schwartz 1982). Additional reports and studies are listed in a comprehensive literature review (Habgood 1983). Studies by Alberta Environment on the limnology of the lake and its nutrient sources began in 1980 (Mitchell 1985) and have been ongoing (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]; Mitchell 1984).

The water in Wabamun Lake is fresh; bicarbonate and sodium are the dominant ions (TABLE 3). Groundwater is thought to play a role in the ion chemistry of the lake, but the volume of groundwater inflow and outflow has been the subject of controversy. The proportion of ions in groundwater in coal seams below the lake bed, and in surficial inflow streams with a groundwater base flow, are both similar to that in the lake water. The maintenance of fresh water in the lake depends on groundwater outflow as well as inflow.

The temperature of the water is usually similar from the top to the bottom of the water column (FIGURE 5) because the surface area is large relative to the depth, and the lake is oriented with the prevailing wind. As a result, the entire water column is normally well-oxygenated from May through October (FIGURE 6). Very rarely, rapid surface warming promotes temporary thermal stratification, and dissolved oxygen levels decline near the bottom. Under ice in winter, the main basin of the lake remains well-oxygenated near the surface, although oxygen levels gradually decline at the bottom. Levels in Moonlight Bay declined to 1.9 mg/L by February in 1980, but they remained somewhat higher in the winter of 1981. As a result of its shallowness and abundant summer plant growth, total oxygen depletion under ice in Moonlight Bay probably occurs in some years. Heated effluent from the Wabamun Power Plant maintains an open area in Kapasiwin Bay in winter; this changes shape and size with weather conditions, but winter dissolved oxygen levels in the east end of the lake undoubtedly are higher as a result. Lake water temperature at the mouth of the cooling canal can be as high as 33°C in summer and 21°C in winter (Beak Consult. Ltd. 1980).

Wabamun Lake is mildly eutrophic. The water has a greenish-brown tinge most of the summer, but the quantity of algae is low enough that water-based activities are enjoyable (TABLE 4). Average concentrations of total phosphorus and chlorophyll a in Wabamun Lake are similar from year to year (TABLE 5); these levels were somewhat higher in 1987 when blue-green algal blooms were prevalent.

The patterns of total phosphorus and chlorophyll a concentrations over the summer are also fairly similar from year to year; those illustrated for the main basin in Figure 7 are typical. There is evidence that phosphorus release from the bottom sediments occurs, even though the water column is usually well-oxygenated. In Moonlight Bay, phosphorus and chlorophyll a levels were minimal in midsummer in 1981, probably as a result of dense macrophyte growth. In general, the limnology of Moonlight Bay is different from that of the main basin of the lake.

The average transparency of the lake is somewhat less than in other lakes with similar levels of chlorophyll. Windy periods tend to resuspend organic material from the bottom of the lake and decrease transparency.

Most of the external supply of phosphorus that enters the lake in a year is derived from the watershed via streams and diffuse runoff (TABLE 6). The supply in precipitation and dust that falls directly onto the lake is also relatively large. Although many people are concerned about the impact of sewage effluent on the lake, it is apparent from the information in TABLE 6 that this source is minor compared to the other sources. The release of phosphorus from the bottom sediments probably has as great an influence on water quality in Wabamun Lake as any other factor.

Biological Characteristics

Plants

Phytoplankton biomass was measured monthly by Alberta Environment during each open-water period from 1980 through 1986 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[al). TABLE 7 presents data for 1983, which was a fairly typical year for patterns of dominance and variation in biomass.

Diatoms (Bacillariophyta) were usually dominant in spring and fall, with blue-greens (Cyanophyta: Anabaena spp. and Aphanizomenon flos-aquae) dominant in July and August. Blue-greens never reached bloom proportions through the first seven years of study. In 1987, however, large populations of Lyngbya Birgei, Gloeotrichia echinulata and Anabaena flos-aquae developed in July. These blue-green species have been present in the phytoplankton in midsummer most years, but in very low proportions. It is likely that the potential for blue-green algal blooms is present each year, but climatic conditions determine whether such blooms actually develop.

In some years, diatoms were dominant throughout the summer. In 1985, for example, Stephanodiscus niagarae attained a large biomass by the end of June, and this continued through mid-September. The well-mixed water column may allow diatoms to persist in Wabamun Lake, whereas in other lakes, they settle out when the water column stratifies (Reynolds 1980). A diatom bloom, which appears brown-green, generally does not cause public concern as does a similar biomass of one of the common nuisance species of blue-green algae.

Macrophytes are abundant in Wabamun Lake and probably always have been. The first plant survey, in 1961 (Dobson and Stanley 1961), documented species similar to those in the lake today, with the exception of Elodea canadensis, which was not observed in the lake in 1961, but became dominant in Kapasiwin Bay by 1970. It was speculated that the success of this species resulted from the open water created by the thermal effluent, rather than from the warm water itself. TransAlta Utilities Corporation conducted a major study on macrophyte growth in Wabamun Lake from 1973 to 1979 (Beak Consult. Ltd. 1980) and continued mapping the macrophyte beds until 1987 (Terrestrial Aquat. Envir. Managers, Ltd. 1987). Elodea breaks dormancy earlier than native species; by the time other species break dormancy in late April, Elodea plants are large and overshadow them (Allen and Gorham 1973; Haag and Gorham 1979; Beak Consult. Ltd. 1980). Elodea populations declined sharply in 1974, but this species is still present in the lake near the outlet canal of the Wabamun power plant at Seba Beach, and in a few other small areas.

The macrophytes in Wabamun Lake were surveyed during the period from 1973 to 1977 by researchers at the University of Alberta (Haag and Gorham 1979). Macrophytes were distributed on the basis of sediment texture and exposure to wind and wave action. Exposed habitats were most prevalent along the north and south shores; emergent plants were absent from most exposed sites. Common great bulrush (Scirpus validus) increased in importance as exposure decreased, and extended to a depth of 1.5 m. Dominant submergent species in exposed areas included stonewort (Chara sp.) and northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens). In areas of lesser exposure and finer-grained sediments, large-sheath pondweed (Potamogeton vaginatus), Richardson pondweed (P. richardsonii) and northern watermilfoil dominated the macrophyte community. Persistent populations of Sago pondweed (P. pectinatus) were confined to fine-textured sediments. Sheltered habitats had higher total plant cover and greater diversity of species than exposed habitats. There was a considerable turnover of species composition at the 30 transect locations studied, even during a single growing season.

TransAlta Utilities Corporation has cut and removed submergent macrophytes from Kapasiwin Bay since 1972. The average annual total wet weight of plants removed during the period from 1972 to 1974 was 2,763 metric tonnes, but between 1975 and 1988, the average annual wet weight was 287 metric tonnes. Plants are harvested from a maximum area of 128 ha, but the average area harvested each year since 1975 has been 51 ha. The peak harvest (4,682 tonnes) was taken in 1973 and the lowest harvest (83 tonnes) was taken in 1982. The greatest weight of plants harvested per hectare is consistently in the area where heated effluent from the Wabamun power plant enters the lake (TransAlta Util. Corp. 1988).

Invertebrates

Alberta Environment collected zooplankton samples twice monthly during the open-water season in 1980 and 1981 and monthly in 1982 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]). The zooplankton in the main basin of Wabamun Lake was numerically dominated by the cladocerans Bosmina longirostris and Daphnia galeata mendotae, and immature stages of calanoid and cyclopoid copepods, until mid-July in all three years. After mid-July until October, B. longistrostris and D. galeata mendotae declined, to be replaced by Chydorus sphaericus, Daphnia retrocurva and Diaphanosoma leuctenbergianum. Immature copepods were abundant throughout the open-water season; two species of calanoid copepods (Diaptomus oregonensis and D. siciles) and three species of planktonic cyclopoid copepods (Diacyclops bicuspidatus thomasi, Acanthocyclops vernalis and Mesocyclops edax) contributed to pulses of nauplii and copepodids. The large numbers of grazers in the main basin affected the levels of chlorophyll at times, and were themselves affected by the types of algae that became dominant.

In Moonlight Bay, there were more zooplankton species that were typically littoral than were observed in the main basin. Immature cyclopoid copepods were abundant throughout the sampling period in 1980 and 1981. Bosmina longirostris was the dominant cladoceran; it did not decline in Moonlight Bay in midsummer as it did in the main basin, nor did Chydorus sphaericus become dominant. The relationship between zooplankton grazing and chlorophyll levels was less apparent in Moonlight Bay than in the main basin.

The macroinvertebrate fauna of Wabamun Lake was studied intensively between May 1972 and September 1975 as a thesis project at the University of Alberta (Rasmussen 1979). Nearly 200 different types of bottom-dwelling and vegetation-inhabiting organisms were observed; most of these were identified to species. Chironomidae (midge) larvae dominated the invertebrate fauna. The fauna of the most organic and nutrient-rich sediments was dominated by larvae of large-sized species of Chironomus. The benthos of moderately organic areas was dominated by smaller-sized species of Chironomus, and the least organic sediments supported species of Polypedilum, Cladotanytarsus and Tanytarsus. In the deepest portions of the lake (9 to 11 m), Chironomus spp. were prevalent, but the species were different than those found in shallower areas. Near the mouth of the heated discharge canal, tubificid oligochaetes were dominant in the sediment and snails (Gastropoda) were dominant on vegetation. The maximum annual standing crop of Chironomidae was greatest in areas affected by the thermal discharge.

Fish

Wabamun Lake is managed for sport, commercial and domestic fisheries. A comprehensive assessment of the fish and fisheries of the lake was completed in 1986 by a consultant for Fish and Wildlife Division; the following is based largely on this study (R.L. & L. Envir. Serv. Ltd. 1987). Four species of sport fish inhabit the lake: lake whitefish, northern pike, yellow perch and walleye. Other fish species include burbot, white sucker, brook stickleback, spottail shiner and Iowa darter.

Angling is an important recreational pursuit in Wabamun Lake. The winter fishery for whitefish is more popular than the summer fishery for northern pike and walleye. The sport fishery is allocated 68,040 kg of the total harvest quota of 113,400 kg for whitefish; the weighted mean catch rate since 1982 is 0.55 fish per hour (TABLE 8, Berry 1986; Ash and Hildebrand 1986). Catch rates are highest when the sport fishery is dominated by young whitefish.

Northern pike grow fairly slowly in Wabamun Lake compared to their growth in nearby Hubbies, Jackfish, Isle and Mink lakes; the reasons for the slow growth are unknown.

Walleye were reportedly present in the lake in 1912, but apparently died out after that time. They were reintroduced as 1-cm fry annually between 1983 and 1986, after which, stocking was suspended to determine if the new population would reproduce naturally. Some stocked fish from each year survived, but as of 1988 it was too early to tell whether reproduction would occur. Growth rates are high, and anglers report that walleye fishing is good (Berry 1988).

Yellow perch are considered too small and too low in abundance to be an important sport fish in Wabamun Lake. Along with spottail shiners and other small fish, they provide a forage base for northern pike and walleye.

Lake whitefish are considered the most important commercial species in the lake. Although eyed-eggs were introduced in the mid-1940s to supplement the population, it was later concluded that the spawning potential of the natural population was sufficient (Miller and Paetz 1953). The population structure of whitefish is related to the emergence of strong year-classes, which become vulnerable first to the sport fishery, then to the commercial fishery as they grow larger. Most female whitefish spawn when they are five years old; males generally reach sexual maturity somewhat earlier. The spawning period extends from early to mid-October to early December, when water temperatures drop below 9°C. Most of the spawning habitat (mixed rock and sand) is at the east end of the lake (Ash 1974).

The predominant food of larger whitefish in Wabamun Lake is chironomid larvae and fingernail clams, and small yellow perch in the fall. In areas affected by thermal effluent, Elodea shoots, snails and chironomid larvae are the main food items; even though Elodea was a dominant item in guts, it is the animals associated with the shoots, rather than the shoots themselves, that are digested (Mackay 1988).

The length of time permitted for the commercial fishery each year depends on the abundance of fish that are large enough to be caught in a 14-cm mesh net; the quota may be reached in one day when fish are abundant. Records of the commercial harvest of whitefish since the winter of 1968/69 indicate that the average harvest over the period to 1987/88 was 50,459 kg. The largest catch during this period was 209,902 kg in the winter of 1987/88 and the smallest catch was 7,529 kg in 1980/81. Over the six-year period from 1982 to 1988, the commercial fishery accounted for about half of the total harvest of whitefish. Wabamun Lake also supports a native domestic fishery; it is allocated 11,340 kg of whitefish annually. Actual catch sizes are unknown (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Wildlife

Upland game birds and big game are present in the Wabamun Lake drainage basin. As the watershed is cleared for mining and agriculture, white-tailed deer increase in numbers while other species of big game decrease (Andries and Schinkel 1981). Marshy areas around the shoreline are used for nesting by waterfowl such as Western and Red-necked grebes, Mallards, American Coots, and Lesser Scaup. There has probably been a reduction in suitable waterfowl habitat over the past 50 years as emergent vegetation was cleared. Some species of ducks and occasionally swans overwinter in the open area produced by the heated effluent of the Wabamun plant and in the Sundance and Keephills cooling ponds. Osprey have been observed nesting on the TransAlta Utilities Corporation power pylons at the southeast end of the lake.

P.A. Mitchell

References

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