Ghost Reservoir

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 is out of date.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 Sheets82O/2
Lat / Long51.2000000, -114.7500000
51°12'N, 114°45'W
Area11.0 km2
Max depth34 m
Mean depth14.5 m
Dr. Basin Area6460 km2
Dam, WeirDam
Drainage BasinBow River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishMountain Whitefish, Lake Whitefish, Lake Trout, Brown Trout
Trophic StatusOligotrophic
TP x7 µg/L
CHLORO x2.0 µg/L
TDS x160 mg/L
Photo credit: D. Huet


Ghost Reservoir is a long, cold, windswept impoundment of the Bow River located on the edge of the foothills approximately 45 km west of Calgary. It was built in 1929 by Calgary Power Ltd., now TransAlta Utilities Corporation, and is still used for hydroelectric power generation. The reservoir lies in an area with beautiful mountain views and provides clean, clear water for recreationists. It is situated on Highway 1A, approximately 22 km west of the town of Cochrane (FIGURE 1) in the Municipal District of Bighorn. Ghost Dam and Ghost Reservoir Provincial Recreation Area are located at the eastern end of the reservoir.

The reservoir and dam are named for the Ghost River, which flows into the east end of the reservoir. It was designated "Dead Man River" on Palliser's map of 1860, but the name was changed to "Ghost" to recall tales of a ghost prowling up and down the river valley, picking up skulls of fallen Blackfoot Indians who had been killed in battle by Cree Indians (Holmgren and Holmgren 1976). In 1873, two dedicated Methodist ministers, the Reverend George McDougall and his son, the Reverend John McDougall, set up a mission across the river from the present site of the locality of Morley to promote the cause of their church. At the same time, they brought the first cattle to the area and started the first ranch in the southern foothills. In 1874, the Hudson's Bay Company built a trading post on the hill above the mouth of the Ghost River to trade with the Indians drawn to the McDougalls' mission. A tireless crusader, George McDougall became lost in January 1876 in a blizzard near Nose Hill in Calgary and perished (MacGregor 1972). He was buried beside his church, which still stands on the north shore of Ghost Reservoir where the mountains to the west and the sweeping west wind can evoke the ghosts of the past to imaginative visitors.

In 1929, Calgary Power Ltd. leased reserve land from the Morley Indians to build the Ghost Dam across the Bow River just below the confluence of the Ghost River to create Ghost Reservoir (Snow 1977). A power transmission line was built from the Ghost power plant to Edmonton; for years, this line was the backbone of Alberta's electrical system (MacGregor 1972). Now, the main purpose of the reservoir is to provide power to Albertans during times of peak daily demand.

Despite limitations imposed by large water level fluctuations, cold water temperatures and wind, the reservoir is popular for power boating, windsurfing and sport fishing. There are no boating or fishing regulations specific to the reservoir, but the Ghost River and its tributaries are closed to angling from 1 November to 15 June and a bait ban is in effect in all flowing waters from 1 November to 15 August (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988; 1989). These regulations may change from year to year. In winter, the reservoir is popular for ice fishing and ice boating.

The best access to the reservoir is at Ghost Reservoir Provincial Recreation Area, previously known as Lakeside Park and Campground, which is just southwest of the bridge crossing the Ghost River (FIGURE 2). Facilities include day-use services year-round and a summer campground with 51 sites, a day-use area, tap and pump water, sewage disposal facilities, a boat launch, a telephone and a gravel beach. The shoreline around most of the reservoir is gravel. The water is clear and algae are inconspicuous year-round.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The drainage basin of Ghost Reservoir is that of the Bow River (FIGURE 1). It is very large (6,460 km2; TABLE 1), almost 600 times the area of the reservoir (11.6 km2, TABLE 2), and fans out to the west, reaching up to the continental divide from the glaciers and peaks around the Kananaskis Lakes and north to the glaciers above Bow Lake. The highest elevation in the basin is 3,611 m on the top of Mt. Assiniboine, south of Banff (FIGURE 1). In the immediate vicinity of the reservoir, hills rise 200 m to the north and 320 m to the south.

The drainage area includes portions of six ecoregions: Montane, Boreal Foothills, Aspen Parkland, Boreal Uplands, Subalpine and Alpine (McGregor 1979; 1984; Strong and Leggat 1981). The Montane Ecoregion surrounds the reservoir, extends up the Bow Valley past Banff, and includes the headwaters of the Ghost River. This ecoregion is found in only 0.5% of the province; it is typified by the presence of Douglas fir and varies in elevation from 1,200 to 2,000 m. From the reservoir to the mountains, and on south-facing slopes in the mountains, the firs are interspersed with fescue grassland and the soils are Black Chernozemics. In damper and cooler areas, the density of trembling aspen, lodgepole pine and white spruce increases and the soils are Eutric Brunisols. The Boreal Foothills Ecoregion extends over most of the basin of the Ghost River and is typified by the codominance of trembling aspen, balsam poplar and lodgepole pine. Luvisolic soils are most common. Just before the Ghost River enters the reservoir, it flows through a tiny area of Aspen Parkland Ecoregion, where trembling aspen is interspersed with fescue grasslands on Chernozemic soils. North of the Boreal Foothills Ecoregion, along the midsection of Waiparous Creek, is the most southern extension of the Boreal Uplands Ecoregion in Alberta. This ecoregion is located in the mountains and foothills above the Boreal Foothills and below the Subalpine Ecoregion. Lodgepole pine is the dominant species, with white or black spruce as climax cover; soils are Luvisols and Brunisols. The Subalpine Ecoregion in the watershed extends from the upper reaches of the Montane and Boreal Uplands ecoregions up to the treeline, which is approximately 2,000 m above sea level in this area. Grasslands on Chernozemic soils develop on steep south-facing slopes; trembling aspen on Chernozemic soils dominates on less-steep south-facing slopes; lodgepole pine, white spruce and fir on Eutric Brunisolic soils dominate in damper, cooler areas; and alder and willow on Regosolic and Gleysolic soils are found along water courses and in depressional areas. The Alpine Ecoregion, indicated on Figure 1, is located above the treeline. Although less than 3% of the province is in this ecoregion, about one-quarter of it is within the Bow River drainage basin. Shrub communities grow in the lower reaches; heaths and dryads are the dominant vegetation at higher elevations and lichens, bare rocks and glaciers occupy the highest areas. Soil development is minimal; those that have developed are Brunisols in well-drained areas and Regosols in poorly drained areas.

The few parcels of private land in the drainage basin lie along the north shore of the reservoir, including the summer village of Ghost Lake, and in the Bow Corridor between the hamlet of Exshaw and the Banff National Park gates, including the Stoney Indian Reserve. Most of the basin is Crown land; a large portion is within Banff National Park, smaller portions are within Peter Lougheed Provincial Park, the Ghost River Wilderness Area and the Bow-Crow Forest Reserve (FIGURE 1). Land use in the basin is mostly recreation and preservation. There is some timber harvesting and oil and gas extraction within the forest reserve and on the Morley Indian Reserve. The population of the basin is very low and is centred in the towns of Canmore and Banff, in the village of Lake Louise and on the Indian reserve.

Several small, intermittent creeks drain into the reservoir, but the Bow River provides about 93% of the inflow and the Ghost River provides about 7% (Envir. Can. 1987). All outflow is via the Bow River.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Ghost Reservoir is a long (13.5 km), narrow (maximum width of 1.4 km) impoundment with one long arm where the Ghost River enters (FIGURE 2). The slope of the basin is variable and depends on the meanders of the original Bow River channel. Slopes at the west end of the reservoir are generally gentle and when the water level is low, which it is almost every spring, extensive mud flats are exposed. During chinooks, the west wind lifts silt off these flats and forms dust clouds that occasionally can be seen as far away as Calgary. Most of the shoreline at the eastern end of the reservoir is barren cobble and gravel.

The dam that created the reservoir was built in 1929 by Calgary Power Ltd. Over the years it has been repaired, changed and augmented (Monenco Ltd. 1985), so the present structures are complex (TABLE 3). Proceeding from north to south, there is an earthfill dam, then a concrete gravity dam fitted with 4 generators that have a total generating capacity of 50,355 kW, then another earthfill dam, then a sluiceway to pass flows greater than those that can be passed through the generators, and finally a dyke to the south shore. The generators can pass flows up to 230 m3/second. In approximately one year of three, usually in June, July or August, the flow of the Bow River exceeds this amount and water flows through the south sluiceway, which can handle flows of 1,560 m3/second at full supply level and 2,600 m 3/second before the water level reaches the top of the dam. If flows ever exceed the capacity of the sluiceway, water can leave the reservoir via an emergency spillway on the main concrete dam at rates up to 1,200 m3/second.

Starting in 1986, TransAlta Utilities Corporation upgraded the dam by replacing the stop-logs in the south sluiceway and in the emergency spillway with electronically controlled steel gates to lessen the time required to release high flows from the reservoir. The stop-logs took days to remove-the new gates can be opened in minutes. To accomplish this, the reservoir was drawn down to 1,183 m and was not filled until mid-1989, when construction was finished.

The dam is operated to generate electrical power. The reservoir is drawn down in April so the water elevation is 1,188 m by 10 May. At that time, the gates in the south sluiceway are set at 1,188.5 m if the mountain snowpack is normal, or 1,187.5 m if the snowpack is above normal. The gates are not changed until June unless a flood causes the reservoir to rise to 1,190 m. If the water is still rising, the south sluiceway gates are opened farther. If the elevation reaches 1,195 m, the gates in the emergency spillway on the main dam are opened. When spring runoff is over, the sluiceway is operated to allow the reservoir to rise to 1,190 m by 1 July and to 1,191 m by mid- to late August. For the rest of the autumn, daily releases approximately equal the inflow. The reservoir is drawn down through the winter. At all times, a minimum riparian flow of 6 m3/second is maintained to the Bow River; most of the balance of water is released between about 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. (Monenco Ltd. 1985). The flushing rate of Ghost Reservoir averages 22 days. In June, the inflow increases and the flushing rate averages less than 10 days.

The water level of Ghost Reservoir has been monitored by TransAlta Utilities Corporation since 1956 (FIGURE 3). Levels reflect the operating regime discussed above. The reservoir is drawn down an average of 5.3 m over winter. A maximum drawdown of 10.7 m is occasionally necessary to inspect or repair the control structures.

Water Quality

The quality of water in Ghost Reservoir was monitored by Alberta Environment four times from May through September 1985 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]).

The water in Ghost Reservoir is fresh and moderately well-buffered; the dominant ions are bicarbonate and calcium (TABLE 4). The reservoir was weakly thermally stratified on the May, July and August sample dates (FIGURE 4). Dissolved oxygen concentrations were high from the surface to the bottom of the water column on all dates except 19 August 1985 when there was some dissolved oxygen depletion at the bottom.

Total phosphorus and chlorophyll a concentrations are extremely low and the water is clear (TABLE 5). In 1985, Secchi depths were shallowest (3.0 m) on 22 May when the reservoir was filling and the water was turbid with suspended silt, and greatest (10.3 m) on 19 August. Ghost Reservoir is oligotrophic.

Biological Characteristics


The phytoplankton in Ghost Reservoir was sampled by Alberta Environment approximately monthly at 8 depths on 18 dates from March 1976 through November 1977 (Beliveau and Furnell 1980). Twenty-five species were identified. The highest concentration of algae (5.9 mg/L) was found on 1 November 1976 and the second and third highest densities were found on 1 September 1976 and 8 November 1977, respectively. Ninety per cent of the November 1977 peak were diatoms (Bacillariophyta), whereas 82% of the September 1976 peak were blue-green algae (Cyanophyta). In 1977, a spring peak on 26 May was 78% Chrysophyta, whereas in 1976, a smaller spring peak on 29 April was 91% blue-greens. In 1977, the algae were strongly dominated by diatoms, cryptophytes, and chrysophytes until late July.

Macrophytes are very sparse in Ghost Reservoir; the gravel shore and fluctuations in water levels maintain a barren shoreline.


There are no recent data on zooplankton or benthic invertebrates in Ghost Reservoir.


Nine species of fish are known to inhabit Ghost Reservoir: lake trout, brown trout, mountain whitefish, lake whitefish, longnose sucker, white sucker, burbot, brook stickleback and longnose dace (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Rainbow and cutthroat trout were stocked annually from 1934 to 1941 and may still be present in very low numbers, but none have been captured recently. Some lake trout were present in the reservoir in 1947, but these were likely migrants from Lake Minnewanka or other lakes along the Bow River (Rawson 1948). The current lake trout population in Ghost Reservoir may be largely due to the 89,000 lake trout introduced in 1948 and 1949 and the 100,000 eyed-eggs introduced in 1952 (Kraft 1989).

On 21 September 1987, 475 m of test-gang gill nets were set for 24 hours (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). The composition of the total catch of 411 fish was: 62% longnose suckers, 22% lake trout, 6% mountain whitefish, 5% lake whitefish, 2% white sucker, 2% burbot and 1% brown trout. The largest lake trout was over 7 kg, the largest lake whitefish was 4.4 kg and the largest mountain whitefish was over 1 kg.

Angling on the reservoir is popular, especially near the Ghost River inflow, where hills shelter the water from the strong west wind. The fishery is managed exclusively for recreational fishing.


Ghost Reservoir does not provide good nesting habitat for waterfowl because of the fluctuating water level and the absence of shoreline vegetation. Canada Geese are often seen at the western end of the reservoir during spring migration.

Habitat around the reservoir is suitable for white-tailed and mule deer, coyotes, badgers, Richardson's ground squirrels, Western Meadowlarks and Mountain Bluebirds.

J.M. Crosby


Alberta Environment. n.d.[a]. Envir. Assess. Div., Envir. Qlty. Monit. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. n.d.[b]. Tech. Serv. Div., Hydrol. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

Alberta Forestry, Lands and Wildlife. n.d. Fish Wild. Div. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. 1988. Boating in Alberta. Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

-----. 1989. Guide to sportfishing. Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

Alberta Research Council. 1972. Geological map of Alberta. Nat. Resour. Div., Alta. Geol. Surv., Edmonton.

Beliveau, D. and A. Furnell. 1980. Phytoplankton data summary 1976-1980. Alta. Envir., Poll. Contr. Div., Water Qlty. Contr. Br. Unpubl. rep., Edmonton.

CH2M Hill Canada Ltd. 1980. Water recreation resources study. Prep. for City Calg., Parks Rec. Dept., Calgary.

Energy, Mines and Resources Canada. 1966, 1967, 1975, 1977. National topographic series 1:250000 82N (1966), 82O (1967), 82J (1977) and 1:50000 82O/2 (1975). Surv. Map. Br., Ottawa.

Environment Canada. 1982. Canadian climate normals, Vol. 7: Bright sunshine (1951-1980). Prep. by Atm. Envir. Serv. Supply Serv. Can., Ottawa.

-----. 1987. Historical streamflow summary: Alberta to 1986. Prep. by Inland Waters Directorate. Water Surv. Can., Water Resour. Br., Ottawa.

Holmgren, E.J. and P.M. Holmgren. 1976. Over 2000 place names of Alberta. 3rd ed. West. Producer Prairie Books, Saskatoon.

Kraft, M. 1989. Alta. For. Ld. Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Rocky Mountain House. Pers. comm.

MacGregor, J.G. 1972. A history of Alberta. Hurtig Publ., Edmonton.

McGregor, C.A. 1979. Ecological land classification and evaluation, Ghost River. Alta. En. Nat. Resour., Resour. Eval. Plan. Div., Edmonton.

-----. 1984. Ecological land classification and evaluation, Kananaskis Country. Alta. En. Nat. Resour., Resour. Eval. Plan. Div., Edmonton.

Monenco Limited. 1985. TransAlta Utilities Corporation dam safety evaluation for Ghost development, Vol. 1. Prep. for TransAlta Util. Corp., Calgary.

Rawson, D.S. 1948. Biological investigations on the Bow and Kananaskis rivers in 1947, with special reference to the effects of power development on the availability of game fish in this area. Alta. Ld. Mines, Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

Snow, Chief J. 1977. These mountains are our sacred places. Samuel-Stevens Publ., Toronto.

Strong, W.L. and K.R. Leggat. 1981. Ecoregions of Alberta. Alta. En. Nat. Resour., Resour. Eval. Plan. Div., Edmonton.

TransAlta Utilities Corporation. n.d. Unpubl. data, Calgary.