Gleniffer 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 is out of date.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 Sheets83B
Lat / Long52.0500000, -114.1666667
52°2'N, 114°10'W
Area17.6 km2
Max depth33 m
Mean depth11.6 m
Dr. Basin Area5610 km2
Dam, WeirDam
Drainage BasinRed Deer River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishWalleye, Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, Mountain Whitefish, Cutthroat Trout, Northern Pike
Trophic StatusOligotrophic
TP x12 µg/L
CHLORO x1.2 µg/L
TDS x213 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Gleniffer Lake is one of Alberta's newest reservoirs. Created in 1983 by the impoundment of the Red Deer River by Dickson Dam, Gleniffer Lake fills the Red Deer River Valley 20 km west of the town of Innisfail in the County of Red Deer (FIGURE 1). The closest population centre is the hamlet of Dickson, 1 km north of the reservoir. To reach Gleniffer Lake from Red Deer, drive 22 km south on Highway 2 to the town of Innisfail, then drive approximately 22 km west on Highway 54; turn south onto a section road and drive for 4 km to the Dickson Dam, which can be crossed by automobile. Routes to various sites on the reservoir are shown in Figure 2.

Gleniffer Lake is named after the tiny post office that was located near the present dam site. Dickson Dam takes its name from the nearby hamlet of Dickson, which was named after Mr. Benedickson, a settler who arrived from Norway near the turn of the century (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976).

The need for a reservoir on the Red Deer River became apparent in the late 1950s with the expansion of communities along the Red Deer River in central Alberta. This expansion led to increased water demand and a need for flow stability. Residents and industrial users also became concerned about water quality in the Red Deer River downstream of the city of Red Deer, especially at times when flows dropped as low as 2 m3/second. In winter, dissolved oxygen concentrations in the river from near Red Deer to the Saskatchewan border dropped well below levels that could support fish (Beak Consult. Ltd. 1977). Alberta Environment initiated technical studies in 1971, and after seven years of engineering and environmental studies and a series of public hearings, a decision was made to build Dickson Dam. Construction began in 1980 and the reservoir started to fill in the summer of 1983.

The reservoir now provides three major benefits to downstream users: an assured year-round water supply, improved water quality in the Red Deer River and flood control. A minimum flow of 16 m3/second is assured and dissolved oxygen concentrations have improved, so the potential for year-round fish survival has also improved. Other benefits of the reservoir include recreation and the potential for small-scale hydroelectric generation.

Gleniffer Lake is very clear and attractive for recreational fishing and boating, but variable water levels make the shoreline and beaches less appealing than those in natural lakes. The Alberta government operates a visitor centre on the dam, six day-use areas that provide access to the lake and two day-use areas for access to the river below the dam (FIGURE 2). Boat launches on the reservoir are available at North Dyke, South Dyke and Cottonwood day-use areas, and canoes can also be launched at Portage day-use area. There is a boat launch on the river below the dam at South Valley day-use area. Swimming is good at Dickson Point, and at South Dyke and North Dyke day-use areas. Fishing is permitted in the trout pond at Dickson Point and there is a children's fish pond at Cottonwood day-use area. Posted areas of the reservoir designate areas where no boats are permitted (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988).

The only public campsite at the lake is a group campground (by reservation only) on the south shore. There are two commercially operated campgrounds; one on the north shore between the North Dyke and Dickson Point day-use areas, and one on the south shore near the South Dyke day-use area. Red Lodge Provincial Park on the Little Red Deer River is approximately 12 km south of the reservoir; it has 130 sites, tap water and a telephone. There is one subdivision on the lake, midway along the south shore.

Gleniffer Lake has very clear water, but it can become turbid with suspended silt during filling in the spring or following heavy rainfalls. It supports a recreational fishery for pike, mountain whitefish and trout. Fish and Wildlife Division has stocked the lake annually since 1983 with rainbow trout. Cutthroat trout were also introduced in 1983 and brown trout in 1984. Dickson Pond, an oxbow on the north shore that can be isolated from the reservoir, is also stocked with rainbow trout, as is a children's fish pond at the South Valley day-use site. Provincial sport fishing regulations apply to Gleniffer Lake. Walleye and sauger from the Red Deer River downstream of Dickson Dam may contain mercury levels that exceed recommended safe levels for human consumption. Pregnant women should not eat these fish; others should not eat more than one meal of these walleye or sauger per week (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

Gleniffer Lake is an onstream storage reservoir; its watershed is that of the entire Red Deer River upstream of Dickson Dam (FIGURE 1). This drainage basin is very large (5,610 km2; TABLE 1) and extends west to Douglas Lake in Banff National Park, just east of the Lake Louise Ski Area. Here, in the Alpine Ecoregion, mountains up to 3,000 m above sea level hold glaciers that melt to provide runoff all summer. Vegetation at this high elevation is dominated by heaths, willow, dwarf birch and krumholz fir and soils are poorly developed Regosols (Strong and Leggat 1981). The Subalpine Ecoregion is located at lower elevations than the Alpine Ecoregion. The dominant vegetation is lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce; soils are Eutric Brunisols. The middle two-thirds of the basin drops from the Sub-alpine Ecoregion through the low mountains and hills of the Boreal Uplands and Boreal Foothills ecoregions, the latter of which extends as far east as the North Raven River. Here the vegetation is primarily white spruce, lodgepole pine, trembling aspen and balsam poplar; soils are Orthic Gray Luvisols. Land use includes logging, oil and gas extraction and summer grazing for cattle. Approximately 60% of this area is covered with trembling aspen, white spruce and lodgepole pine, with black spruce and tamarack in low areas, and 40% of the area has been cleared for grazing and mixed farming. Oil and gas wells are numerous. Most of the area east of the North Raven River and immediately surrounding Gleniffer Lake is in the Aspen Subregion of the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion and has been cleared for grain crop production and mixed farming. Soils in this area are Orthic and Eluviated Black Chernozemics, which developed on glacial till (Peters and Bowser 1960). In 1975, only 19% of the 270 km2 surrounding the reservoir site had not been cleared; 81% of this was forested with deciduous or mixed wood, 10% was black spruce bog, 8% was coniferous forest and 1% was covered with shrubs (D.A. Westworth Assoc. Ltd. et al. 1982). The lowest elevation in the basin is on the shore of Gleniffer Lake, 948.0 m at full supply level.

There are only two population centres in the basin; the town of Sundre and the village of Caroline. All of the shoreline of the reservoir is Crown land, but in some areas it forms only a very narrow band; larger areas of Crown land are shown on Figure 2.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Gleniffer Lake has a very small surface area (17.6 km2) relative to the size of its drainage basin (5 610 km2). At full supply level, the reservoir is 11.0-km long and 2.1-km wide and follows the contours of the Red Deer River Valley. Its steep sides drop sharply to a wide, flat bottom. The deepest point (33 m) is just upstream of the dam (FIGURE 2).

When the reservoir is drawn down 15 m to an elevation of 933 m (as it was in May of 1984), the surface area drops to about 6 km2, exposing over 11 km2 of mud flats (FIGURE 3). Such fluctuating water levels make it unlikely that a littoral zone with aquatic plants will develop. However, on the north side of the reservoir near the western end, a pond created in an old oxbow of the river has been separated from the main body of the reservoir with a dyke and weir. The water level in the pond can be held constant when the reservoir is drawn down, and aquatic plants have already colonized the area. The maximum depth of the pond (7.0 m) and the low productivity of the water provide good conditions to overwinter trout.

Dickson Dam is a multizoned earthfill structure (TABLE 2). With 3.6 x 106 m3 of fill, it is one of the largest dams of its type in Alberta. Two dykes border the reservoir at the east end; the north one is 3.1-km long and the south one is 3.7-km long (FIGURE 2). Two tunnels under the dam can provide continuous riparian flow of 16 m3/second year-round and can pass flows up to 84 m3/second. The service spillway passes flow in excess of 84 m3/second and can handle flows that would occur in a flood that might be expected only once in every 10,000 years. In the event of a larger flood, the emergency spillway near the east end of the dam would carry the overflow. The two low-level tunnels are equipped to be fitted with turbines in future; they could generate 4 MW at 16 m3/second flow and up to 20 MW at higher flows. A two-lane road on the dam allows the public to cross the valley.

The dam is operated to fill the reservoir rapidly in the spring to bring the water level to approximately 946.0 m by 1 July (Alta. Envir. n.d.fa]). The level is held close to this throughout the summer to maximize recreational use, yet still retain some capacity to hold floodwater. The reservoir is filled close to its full supply level (947.8 m) by fall (FIGURE 4). Water is released at a minimum of 16.0 m3/second all winter, leading to the lowest annual reservoir levels by March or April (Nguyen 1980).

The volume of flow through the reservoir is high; average residence time of the water is 70 days (0.2 years, TABLE 2). In years of high flow in the Red Deer River, the mean residence time could be as short as 30 days.

Water Quality

The water quality of Gleniffer Lake has been monitored by Alberta Environment since the reservoir was first filled in the summer of 1983 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[b]).

Gleniffer Lake is a well-buffered, freshwater reservoir; its dominant ions are bicarbonate, sulphate and calcium. There is little difference in ionic composition between the west end where the Red Deer River enters the reservoir, and the east end near the dam (TABLE 3).

The shallower west end is frequently mixed by wind and the inflowing river currents; in 1984, the water column was only weakly thermally stratified in July and August (FIGURE 5). The water in this area was well-oxygenated throughout the summer and fall (FIGURE 6). The deep east end was thermally stratified from mid-June to the end of August 1984 (FIGURE 5). At the same time, dissolved oxygen concentrations were low below 10 m; the water within 5 m of the substrate was anoxic by late July (FIGURE 6). In the summers of 1986 and 1987, the deep end was stratified only occasionally and anoxic conditions were not found even at the greatest depth.

Phosphorus concentrations during the open-water period follow a pattern of high levels in spring, possibly due to the inflow of nutrient-rich runoff in the Red Deer River; then a late summer or autumn peak (FIGURE 7). The autumn peak occurs when thermal stratification breaks down at the deep east end of the reservoir and the lower stratum of water, which is enriched with nutrients released from anoxic sediment, mixes with the upper stratum of water.

Chlorophyll a levels are consistently low (TABLE 4, FIGURE 7). The low Secchi depth in spring and early summer (FIGURE 7) is attributable to suspended sediment in the water, not algae. Gleniffer Lake is considered to be oligotrophic.

Biological Characteristics


Phytoplankton species composition and density in Gleniffer Lake were monitored by Alberta Environment at three sites monthly during the ice-free period since the reservoir was first filled in 1983, until 1986 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[b]). In general, the low phytoplankton abundance and species composition is indicative of cold, clean nutrient-poor water. For example, in 1986 (TABLE 5), phytoplankton biomass at the east end of the reservoir peaked in May and was dominated by diatoms (Cyclotella ocellata) and chrysophytes (Heterochromas globosa). During the rest of the open-water period the algal community was strongly dominated by cryptophytes (Cryptomonas erosa and Rhodomonas minuta).

There is no detailed information on macrophytes in Gleniffer Lake. Because of annual drawdowns, it is unlikely that areas of abundant macrophytes will develop, except in the trout pond near Dickson Point where dyking prevents water withdrawal during drawdown.


There are no data on zooplankton or benthic invertebrates in Gleniffer Lake.


Twenty-three species of fish have been collected from Gleniffer Lake (TABLE 6); of these, mountain whitefish, northern pike and white suckers are the most common. An average of 223,000 rainbow trout were stocked annually from 1983 to 1986. In 1987, approximately 250 adult trout were introduced. Cutthroat trout were stocked in 1983 and brown trout in 1984. The Red Deer River immediately downstream of the dam was stocked with rainbow trout annually from 1983 to 1987, as was the trout pond near the Dickson Point Day-Use Area. In 1988, approximately 152,000 walleye were introduced into the reservoir (Alta. En. Nat. Resour. 1983; 1985; Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1986-1988). As of 1989, Fish and Wildlife Division planned to stock a similar number of walleye in each of 1989 and 1990.

In the summer of 1987, during a creel census conducted by Fish and Wildlife Division, 116 anglers at Gleniffer Lake were interviewed. They reported a catch rate of 0.05 fish per hour of angling; 55% of the catch was northern pike, 37% was rainbow trout and 5% was brown trout. A 1986 creel census of 219 anglers on the river below the dam reported 0.02 fish caught per hour; 47% were rainbow trout, 21% were mountain whitefish, 9% were walleye, 8% were sauger, 6% were brown trout and 2% were cutthroat trout. A creel census at the trout pond near Dickson Point reported a catch rate of 0.24 fish per hour, all rainbow trout (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Fish and Wildlife Division test-netted the reservoir every autumn from 1983 to 1987. In 1987, 245 fish were caught: 50% longnose sucker, 32% white sucker, 10% northern pike, 3% rainbow trout, 3% shorthead redhorse and 1% or less of each of mountain whitefish and burbot (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Spawning areas of the fish in the reservoir are not known. Winter drawdown limits the habitat within the reservoir for fall spawners and restricts growth of macrophyte beds, which are often used by pike. Suitable habitat does exist upstream on the Red Deer River and in tributaries (D.A. Westworth Assoc. Ltd. et al. 1982). The dam completely blocks fish movement, so species of fish trapped below the dam (mountain whitefish, mooneye, goldeneye), which previously spawned in tributaries above the dam (such as the Raven River), have had to find new spawning areas (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; D.A. Westworth Assoc. Ltd. et al. 1982). Fish in the river downstream of the dam appear to have adapted and significant reductions in the populations have not been noticed (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Accumulation of mercury in fish following the filling of new reservoirs commonly occurs in Canada and throughout the world. The mercury content of fish in the reservoir and in the Red Deer River downstream of the dam has been monitored since 1983 (Moore et al. 1986; Weaver 1989). As of 1988, there was no large increase in the mercury residues in fish compared to levels found before the reservoir was filled. In most instances, the difference in mercury concentrations in muscle tissue from fish of the same length were not statistically significant. Except for large individuals, concentrations rarely exceeded 0.5 µg/g in any species.


There is no readily available information on wildlife at Gleniffer Lake.

J.M. Crosby


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