Gull Lake

Basic Info
Map Sheets83A, B
Lat / Long52.5666667, -114.0000000
52°34'N, 114°0'W
Area80.6 km2
Max depth8 m
Mean depth5.4 m
Dr. Basin Area206 km2
Dam, WeirNone
Drainage BasinRed Deer River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishLake Whitefish, Walleye, Northern Pike
Trophic StatusMesotrophic
TP x39 µg/L
CHLORO x6.6 µg/L
TDS x753 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Gull Lake is a large, shallow lake located west of the town of Lacombe in the counties of Ponoka and Lacombe. Because it is situated between the cities of Edmonton and Calgary, Gull Lake is easily accessible to large numbers of people. Its clear water and sandy beaches contribute to its popularity, and the lake is heavily used on warm, sunny weekends. To reach the lake, take Highway 2 from Edmonton or Calgary to Lacombe, then turn west on Highway 12 and drive for 14 km to the summer village of Gull Lake (FIGURE 1).

Homesteaders first settled the region south and west of Gull Lake in about 1895; many of these people came from the United States. By 1902, most of the land had been settled and a lumber industry had been established. A 26-m-long steamboat built in 1898 was used in a sawmill operation at Birch Bay on the northwest shore of Gull Lake (Coulton 1975). Passengers were often carried on this and other steamboats on the lake.

In 1908, Gull Lake served briefly as a hydroelectric reservoir when the Blindman River Electric Power Company Ltd. built a concrete dam on the outlet. Water from the lake was intended to supplement the flow of the Blindman River for power generation, but the dam was destroyed by dynamite in 1910. In ensuing years, the water level of the lake declined, and in 1921, the first formal complaint regarding the low water level was received by the Commissioner of Irrigation in Calgary. The same year, the summer village of Gull Lake built an earth and concrete dam at the outlet, which is now located about 1.6 km from the present shoreline (Bailey 1970).

Between 1924 and 1968, the water level in Gull Lake dropped an average of 6 cm per year, causing great concern among recreational users. In 1967, the Water Resources Division of Alberta Agriculture undertook a series of preliminary studies to try to solve the problem. In 1969 a Gull Lake Study Task Force, formed by personnel from various government agencies, was directed to investigate alternative proposals for stabilizing Gull Lake. Engineering, economic and land use studies were completed in 1970. The decision was made to divert water from the Blindman River through a pipeline and canal to supplement inflow. Pumping began in the spring of 1977, but at present, pumping occurs only when the lake level declines below a designated elevation (Richmond 1988).

Aspen Beach Provincial Park, established in 1932, was one of the first parks in the Alberta park system (Finlay and Finlay 1987). It is located on the southwest shore of Gull Lake. This attractive park, with an area of 2.15 km2, has 4 campgrounds with 572 sites, a group camping area, a boat launch, beaches, day-use areas, flush toilets and showers. In addition, there are several campgrounds operated by private owners or nonprofit organizations around the lakeshore. Activities at the lake include sailing, power boating, swimming, fishing and windsurfing. In posted areas of the lake, either all boats are prohibited or power-driven boats are subject to a maximum speed of 12 km/hour (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988).

Gull Lake is used moderately for sport fishing, but there is no commercial or domestic fishery. Northern pike and walleye are the most sought-after sport fish, although lake whitefish are also present in the lake. Walleye have been stocked in Gull Lake in recent years. The diversion canal into the lake is closed to fishing year-round; there are no specific fishing regulations for the lake, but provincial limits apply (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The area of the watershed surrounding Gull Lake is about twice the area of the lake (Tables 1, 2; FIGURE 1). There are no permanently flowing inlet streams, and the lake's natural outlet in the southwest corner has been dry for many years (Red Deer Reg. Plan. Commis. 1979).

Along the western side of the drainage basin and in the northern one third, soils are Orthic Gray Luvisols that developed on glacial till. Immediately north of the lake, soils are Organics, interspersed with Dark Gray Luvisols that developed on lacustrine material. Eluviated Black Chernozemic soils are present along a narrow strip on the western side of the lake, south of the lake and along the eastern side. The Luvisolic soils have an arability rating of fairly good to good, whereas the Chernozemic soils are rated good to excellent. Near the lake and in the southern part of the watershed, the topography is level, but to the west and east, slopes range from 5 to 15% (Bowser et al. 1947; 1951; Lindsay et al. 1968).

Much of the land in the drainage basin has been cleared for agriculture; cattle production and cereal crops are the main agricultural uses. The native vegetation is typical of the Aspen Parkland and Boreal Mixedwood ecoregions: the dominant trees are trembling aspen, balsam poplar, white spruce and willow.

The fairly extensive recreational development at Gull Lake is concentrated on the southern and southeastern shores, although other parts of the shoreline are also developed. By 1978, about 25% of the shoreline had been developed (Red Deer Reg. Plan. Commis. 1979). The number of cottages along the shore of Gull Lake within the County of Ponoka was estimated to be 157 in 1987 including those in the summer village of Parkland Beach, which was established in 1983 (Heilman 1989). In 1980, it was estimated there were about 330 cottages along the shore within the County of Lacombe, including those in the summer village of Gull Lake (Williams 1989). The summer village of Gull Lake had a population of 102 in 1986.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Gull Lake has one large, shallow basin (FIGURE 2). It is oriented in the direction of the prevailing northwest wind, and therefore the water becomes very rough when the wind blows from the northwest or southeast. The greatest depth of the lake, 8 m, covers a large area of the bottom in the centre of the basin. The lake bottom slopes very gradually toward the centre, except along the east and west shores, which are steeper. The shoreline is sandy, but soft organic sediments have accumulated in the shallow water of protected bays.

The water level in Gull Lake was first recorded in 1924, when the lake was at an elevation of 901.45 m. The elevation was also recorded from 1938 to 1946, in 1949, and has been monitored regularly since 1953 (FIGURE 3). Between 1924 and 1975, the decline in lake elevation amounted to 2.6 m (Rozeboom and Figliuzzi 1985). The main reason for the decline was thought to be an increase in the ratio of evaporation to precipitation, but changing groundwater patterns also may have contributed (Bailey 1970). In 1977, Alberta Environment began diverting water from the Blindman River into Gull Lake through a channel dug into the bed of the old outlet creek. The diversion is facilitated by three pumps with a combined maximum pumping capacity of 0.85 m3/second. The maximum amount of water that could be diverted in a full pumping season is about 11 x 106 m3, or 2% of the lake volume. This volume of water would raise the level of the lake about 14 cm (Rozeboom and Figliuzzi 1985) (FIGURE 4). Although pumping may occur anytime between March and October, the diversion is limited by the availability of water in the Blindman River. During dry periods, when the water level in the lake is declining, the volume of water in the river tends to be low as well, and pumping is limited. Pumping also does not take place whenever the target elevation is attained, as occurred most of the time between 1982 and 1986 (Richmond 1988). The target elevation of 899.16 m, which was based on recreation studies conducted in about 1969, is lower than lake elevations recorded in the 1920s (Bailey 1970).

Water Quality

Gull Lake was studied by researchers at the University of Alberta in 1973 and 1974 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]), and Alberta Environment assessed the impact of the Blindman River diversion on the water quality of Gull Lake between October 1977 and February 1980 (Mitchell 1981) and again in 1989 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]). The lake has also been sampled intermittently since 1983 as part of an ongoing monitoring program conducted jointly by Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks (Alta. Envir. 1989).

Gull Lake is slightly saline; the total dissolved solids concentrations (TDS) averaged 713 mg/L between 1983 and 1985 (TABLE 3). Bicarbonate, sodium and sulphate are the dominant ions. Total dissolved solids concentrations declined slightly between 1977 and 1983 as a result of diversion water inflow that was low in salinity (TDS = 250 mg/L), but concentrations increased in the lake after pumping was discontinued between 1983 and 1986. These fluctuations are within the natural variation observed in lake TDS data prior to the diversion.

This large, shallow lake mixes completely during most of the summer, and temperature remains uniform from the surface to the bottom (FIGURE 5). As a result, levels of dissolved oxygen are high throughout the water column (FIGURE 6). In winter, dissolved oxygen concentrations decline gradually. Although dissolved oxygen was often negligible a metre or two above the bottom by early March in the years sampled (1978 to 1980 and 1984 to 1986), the upper portion of the water column always had sufficient oxygen to support fish; no winterkills of fish have been reported in Gull Lake.

The relatively low concentrations of chlorophyll a in Gull Lake indicate that it is mesotrophic (TABLE 4), although the phosphorus levels suggest a more productive lake. It appears that the lake's salinity depresses algal biomass (chlorophyll a) to some extent, as was found in other saline lakes in Alberta (Bierhuizen and Prepas 1985). The diversion had no detectable effect on chlorophyll levels in Gull Lake up to 1986. Although the concentration of phosphorus in the diversion water is about twice that in the lake water, the supply of phosphorus to the lake (TABLE 5) would increase only by about 11% per year during a full pumping season. Runoff over agricultural land during spring snowmelt and summer rainfall contributes the highest percentage of total phosphorus to the lake.

It is probable that some portion of the supply of total phosphorus to Gull Lake is derived from its bottom sediments, as occurs in most shallow, productive lakes in Alberta. Increases in phosphorus and chlorophyll levels in summer (FIGURE 7) may be the result of such phosphorus release. This potential source of phosphorus to the lake has not been quantified, nor has the phosphorus in local groundwater that may enter the lake.

Biological Characteristics


The phytoplankton of Gull Lake was studied briefly during a Fish and Wildlife Division survey in 1969 (Kraft 1977) and by Alberta Environment during a water quality assessment in 1983 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]). In 1969, green (Chlorophyta) and blue-green (Cyanophyta) algae were most abundant in June and blue-greens (Anabaena flos-aquae) dominated the phytoplankton community by mid-August. In 1983 (TABLE 6), the biomass of phytoplankton was low through May and June, and green algae, diatoms (Bacillariophyta) and cryptophytes (Cryptophyta) were the dominant groups. The prevalent species included Ankyra judayii, Staurastrum sp., Rhodomonas minuta, Sphaerocystis schroeteri, Amphora ovalis and Asterionella formosa. By mid-July, the total biomass had increased considerably, and the dominant species were the diatoms Fragilaria crotonensis and Stephanodiscus niagarae, the green alga Mougeotia sp., and the blue-green alga Lyngbya Birgei. Mougeotia sp. maintained a high population through August, but Fragilaria crotonensis was replaced by F. capucina, and Ceratium hirundinella, a species of Pyrrhophyta, became dominant. In September and October, the species with the highest biomass was Fragilaria crotonensis, followed by Closterium acutum and Gomphosphaeria aponina.

The macrophyte community of Gull Lake was surveyed in 1973 and 1974 by researchers at the University of Alberta (TABLE 7). Gull Lake supports extensive submergent macrophyte beds, as might be expected in such a shallow lake, but emergent species such as common cattail (Typha latifolia), common great bulrush (Scirpus validus) and sedge (Carex sp.) were found along only 30% of the shoreline. Limited emergent vegetation was also found during a fish habitat study conducted by Fish and Wildlife Division in 1969 (FIGURE 8). Other lakes surveyed during 1973 and 1974 had more extensive emergent beds. Cattail was the most common emergent plant in Gull Lake, whereas in neighbouring lakes, bulrush tended to be most abundant. The submergent zone in Gull Lake was dominated by large-sheath pondweed (Potamogeton vaginatus), and in many areas it was the sole species present. It grew abundantly to a depth of 4 m. In shallow areas (less than 1-m deep) northern watermilfoil (Myriophyllum exalbescens) and Sago pondweed (Potamogeton pectinatus) were common.


The zooplankton of Gull Lake was studied by Alberta Environment in 1978 and 1979 as part of an assessment of the impact of the diversion on water quality (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]; Mitchell 1981). The large grazers, Daphnia pulicaria and Diaptomus sicilis, were abundant in the spring and early summer of both years, but their populations were smaller through the remainder of the summer to the end of October. Large numbers of the rotifer Conochilus sp. were present in July. Seven other species of rotifers were observed sporadically throughout the summer. The predaceous copepod Diacyclops bicuspidatus thomasi was most abundant in spring and early summer, but was present throughout the entire open-water season. Mesocyclops edax was abundant in midsummer.

Benthic invertebrates were sampled by Fish and Wildlife Division in June and August of 1969 (Kraft 1977). About 98% of the organisms collected were scuds (Amphipoda) and midge larvae (Chironomidae) (TABLE 8). The greatest number of scuds were collected from depths between 0 and 3 m, whereas the greatest number of midge larvae were found at depths between 3 and 4.5 m.


White suckers, northern pike, walleye, burbot, lake whitefish, spot-tail shiners and brook stickleback are known to inhabit Gull Lake (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Paetz and Nelson 1970). One specimen of yellow perch was captured during a Fish and Wildlife Division test netting of the lake in 1969. It was speculated that this was a remnant of a stocking program conducted during the 1960s (Kraft 1977). Yellow perch were also stocked in 1975 and 1977, but none were captured during a Fish and Wildlife Division netting program in 1983, so the species may not have become established in Gull Lake (Kozak 1984).

Gull Lake is managed for sport fishing only. The most sought-after fish are walleye and northern pike. Angling pressure is greatest in spring and then tapers off during summer. In 1969, walleye were most abundant along the east side of the lake in the area known as Wilson's Beach. Most walleye caught in test nets were age six through nine years, even though most of the nets set were of small mesh size (4 and 6 cm). It was thought that the small proportion of young fish was a result of age-class failures (Kraft 1977). Walleye were stocked in 1987, 1988 and 1989 to augment the natural population. After several years, the success of the program will be evaluated (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Northern pike were found to be sparse during a Fish and Wildlife Division survey in 1969. They were most abundant at the north end of the lake where aquatic vegetation is abundant. Eighty percent of the northern pike captured were 40 to 50 cm in fork length; the largest fish caught weighed 6.8 kg and had a fork length of nearly 1 m. The growth rate of pike in Gull Lake was similar to that of pike captured in test nets in other central Alberta lakes. Their main food was burbot (Kraft 1977).

Lake whitefish were transplanted to Gull Lake from Pigeon Lake in 1975, 1976 and 1977 and have now become established (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). In 1983, a test netting program was conducted to evaluate the whitefish population. Most of the fish caught were three, four or five years old. Whitefish in Gull Lake were a greater size at a particular age than those in Pigeon Lake, but smaller at age than those collected from Buck Lake (Kozak 1984).


Gull Lake is one of the few lakes in the region that supports large populations of waterfowl. The lake serves as a staging area during fall migration, and the marshy north end supports Ring-billed Gulls, Black Terns, Common Goldeneye, American Widgeons, Mallards, Blue-winged Teal, White-winged Scoters, Common Mergansers, Common Loons and Red-winged Blackbirds (Red Deer Reg. Plan. Commis. 1979).

P.A. Mitchell and L. Hart Buckland-Nicks


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