Lake Newell

Basic Info
Map Sheets72L/5, 12, 82I/8
Lat / Long50.4166667, -111.9500000
50°25'N, 111°57'W
Area66.4 km2
Max depth19.8 m
Mean depth4.8 m
Dr. Basin Area84.6 km2
Dam, WeirDam
Drainage BasinBow River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishLake Whitefish, Bull Trout, Walleye, Yellow Perch, Brown Trout, Northern Pike, Rainbow Trout
Trophic StatusEutrophic
TP x29 µg/L
CHLORO x11.0 µg/L
TDS x196 mg/L
Photo credit: Alberta Recreation and Parks/B. Crawford


Lake Newell is one of Alberta's largest reservoirs. It is situated in the County of Newell about 200 km southeast of the city of Calgary and 125 km northwest of the city of Medicine Hat. Kinbrook Island Provincial Park is located on the eastern side of the lake (FIGURE 1). The closest population centre is the town of Brooks, located about 14 km north of the provincial park. To reach the park from either Calgary or Medicine Hat, take Highway 1 to Brooks, then Secondary Road 873 south to the park entrance road.

Early settlement of what is now the County of Newell followed the arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) in 1883 (Gross and Nicoll Kramer 1985). Rainfall was limited, so the first settlers were mostly ranchers rather than farmers. In 1903, the railway company became owner of most of the land in the area, which it named the Eastern Section. To bring settlers to the land, the company initiated construction of an irrigation system in 1910. The Bassano Dam, located on the Bow River about 6 km southwest of the present-day town of Bassano, was the focal point of the project. All water for the irrigation system is diverted from the Bow River by means of this structure. Dam construction began in 1910 and was completed in 1914. Most homesteaders settled in the area between 1915 and 1919, many of them buying land from the CPR. During the agricultural depression of the 1920s and the general depression and drought of the 1930s, many people abandoned their farms and others could not meet mortgage payments to the railway. Meanwhile, the CPR was suffering heavy operating losses and hopes dwindled for recovering their investment in the irrigation project. When the farmers offered to assume responsibility for the irrigation works, the CPR welcomed the suggestion. In 1935, the CPR transferred the irrigation works, the existing land contracts and $300,000 to the farmers' organization and the Eastern Irrigation District was formed (Gross and Nicoll Kramer 1985). The Eastern Irrigation District covers about 604,000 ha of land, and its boundaries are almost the same as those of the County of Newell. Individual water users in the irrigation district own 345,000 ha of land, and the remaining 259,000 ha is collectively owned by the 1,180 water users in the district's membership (Gross and Nicoll Kramer 1985).

Construction of Lake Newell, the Main Canal and the East Branch Canal was concurrent with construction of the Bassano Dam. The area where the lake is now located was originally a large depression holding a small lake, Crooked Lake, which was fed by a small intermittent stream (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). When the reservoir was completed in 1914, it was named for T.H. Newell, an American irrigation expert who had bought half a township of land west of Crooked Lake in 1911 (Gross and Nicoll Kramer 1985). The water level of Lake Newell was raised in 1939 in order to extend irrigation to the Rolling Hills District, southeast of the lake (Alta. Rec. Parks n.d.). The outlet structures and the East Branch Canal inlet were further modified in 1978 to raise the lake's water level by another 0.91 m to increase live storage. Between 1988 and 1992, the East Branch Canal will be enlarged to increase inflow. This will stabilize lake levels and increase outflow for a planned expansion of irrigation (Clark 1989).

The history of Kinbrook Island Provincial Park dates back to 1944, when the Kinsmen Club of Brooks obtained a recreational lease for Kinbrook Island, which they named for their club. Recreational facilities were developed, and in 1951, the island became a provincial park. In 1952, the park was enlarged to include all of the other islands in the lake so that nesting sites for White Pelicans, Double-crested Cormorants and Canada Geese would be preserved. Pelican Island, at the southwest end of the lake, is now a seasonal sanctuary, and access is prohibited from 15 April to 15 September each year. The rest of the park is open year-round. The park has 209 campsites, sewage disposal facilities, tap water, playgrounds, two boat launches, picnic areas and shelters, a concession and a swimming area. During summer, popular activities in the park and on the lake are swimming, motor boating, sailing, fishing for northern pike and lake whitefish, birdwatching, windsurfing and canoeing. Several sailing regattas and fishing derbies are held during the season. Boating is prohibited in some posted areas, such as designated swimming areas, and power boats are restricted to a maximum speed of 12 km/hour in other areas (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988). In winter, ice fishing, ice sailing and skating are popular activities. There are no special regulations for the sport fishery, but provincial limits and regulations apply (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

The water in Lake Newell turns green during July and August, but the concentration of algae during the remainder of the open-water season is frequently quite low and the water is moderately transparent. Large annual water level fluctuations result in low densities of aquatic vegetation near shore. In addition to the sport fishery, the lake supports a commercial fishery for lake whitefish and northern pike.

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The natural drainage basin around Lake Newell is very small and covers an area only 1.3 times the size of the lake (Tables 1, 2). Five intermittent streams flow into the north and west sides of the reservoir (FIGURE 1) but almost all of the water in the reservoir originates from the Bow River at the Bassano Dam diversion. Water from the Bow River is diverted into the Main Canal and then the East Branch Canal. It flows to the lake by two routes: the main volume flows from the East Branch Canal directly into the north end of the lake and a smaller volume flows from the East Branch Canal through the Bow Slope Canal and the Bow Slope Spillway into the southeast end of the lake (FIGURE 1). Lake Newell has two outlets: the Bantry Canal at the northeast end delivers water to the North and West Bantry Canal Systems, and the outlet at the southeast end flows into Rolling Hills Lake.

Lake Newell and its canal system are situated within the Kininvie Plain district of the Alberta Plains physiographic region (Kjearsgaard et al. 1983). The Kininvie Plain is primarily an undulating moraine with a few areas of higher relief. The elevation of Lake Newell's natural drainage basin ranges from 768 m near the lake to 800 m at the northwest corner of the drainage basin. The Kininvie Plain is capped with either a blanket or a veneer of glacial till, through which the underlying sedimentary rock material outcrops in localized areas, as at the northern end of Lake Newell. The weakly consolidated sedimentary rock near the lake belongs to the Oldman Formation. The remainder of the lake's natural drainage basin is also underlain by this formation, and is covered by till.

Soils in the north, west and southeast portions of the natural drainage basin and along the north half of the eastern shore are mostly moderately well-drained, loam-textured Brown Solodized Solonetz (Kjearsgaard et al. 1983). Because of their development on moderately saline parent materials, these soils have little or no potential for cultivated agriculture. The land is, however, used for grazing. Well-drained, loam-textured Orthic Brown Chernozemics are located in the southern and southeastern portions of the natural drainage basin. Although these soils have good agricultural potential for dryland and irrigated agriculture, they are grazed, but not farmed, at present. Natural vegetation is typical of the Short Grass Ecoregion: grama grass is dominant in drier areas and spear and wheat grasses become more abundant as moisture increases (Strong and Leggat 1981).

Except for the islands in the lake, all of the land in the drainage basin is privately owned. The largest land owner is the Eastern Irrigation District, which leases much of its land to cattle grazing associations. The watershed lies on top of a major gas field, and there is considerable activity related to gas extraction.

There has been little residential development near the lake. A subdivision is located at Dam No. 1 at the northeast corner of the lake (FIGURE 1). A second subdivision, with 57 lots, is located within the provincial park.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Lake Newell has the largest area (66.4 km2, TABLE 2) of any reservoir in Alberta (Gross and Nicoll Kramer 1985). The lake has never been sounded, so there are no bathymetric contours available.

A total of 19 structures along the eastern shore control the lake's water level. The two main dams are located at the far northeast and southeast corners of the lake (FIGURE 1). Dam No. 1, which is also called North Headgate or Bantry Headgate, is the largest structure (TABLE 2). It controls water flow into the main Bantry Canal. Dam No. 18, at the southeast end, controls water flow into nearby Rolling Hills Lake. This lake acts as a balancing reservoir between Lake Newell and the Rolling Hills Canal.

Water flows into Lake Newell from April to November, and out of the lake from May to October. The lake reaches its highest elevation in May and early June, when it is replenished by water from the Bow River via the East Branch Canal and the Bow Slope Canal. The elevation then declines until July or August as water flows out to Bantry Canal and Rolling Hills Lake to meet the peak water demand for irrigation. Between 1985 and 1988, the average inflow from the East Branch and Bow Slope canals was 295 x 106 m3/year (TABLE 2); 72% of this water arrived via the East Branch Canal and 28% arrived via the Bow Slope Canal. During the same period, outflow averaged 241 x 106 m3/year; 25% of the outflow went to the Rolling Hills Canal and the remainder flowed into the Bantry Canal (East. Irrig. Dist. n.d.).

Water levels in Lake Newell have been monitored since 1973 (FIGURE 2). Between spring and midsummer, the drop in water level can be quite large. The greatest fluctuation in a single year, 2.76 m, was recorded in 1985. The historic maximum lake elevation (767.79 m) was recorded in May 1985, and the historic minimum (764.63 m) was recorded in August 1974.

Additional water withdrawals from Lake Newell, other than for irrigation, are made by the town of Brooks, Pan Canadian Petroleum and Kinbrook Island Provincial Park (Alta. Envir. n.d.[e]). Brooks was licenced for a withdrawal of 4.93 x 106 m3/year in 1986, and in that year and 1987, the town withdrew an average of 2.68 x 106 m3/year. Pan Canadian Petroleum is licenced for 2.77 x 106 m3/year; in 1987, their withdrawals amounted to 1.31 x 106 m3. The provincial park is licenced for 0.048 x 106 m3/year. In 1986 and 1987, the park withdrew 0.033 x 106 m3/year.

Water Quality

Water quality in Lake Newell was studied by Fish and Wildlife Division during 1981, by Alberta Environment in 1983, and jointly by Alberta Environment and Alberta Recreation and Parks from 1984 to 1986 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]; English 1985).

The lake has fresh water that is hard, well-buffered and not very turbid (TABLE 3). The dominant ions are bicarbonate, sulphate and calcium.

During the open-water season in 1983, the water column was well-mixed (FIGURE 3). The maximum surface temperature of 21.7°C was recorded in early August. Concentrations of dissolved oxygen were uniformly high from surface to bottom throughout the open-water period (FIGURE 4). In February 1981, dissolved oxygen concentrations decreased gradually with depth, from 13.2 mg/L at the surface to 4.2 mg/L at the bottom.

Lake Newell is mildly eutrophic. In 1983, the average chlorophyll a concentration was 11.8 µg/L and the average total phosphorus level was 32 µg/L (TABLE 4). Maximum values for phosphorus (45 µg/L) and chlorophyll a (28 µg/L) were recorded in late July of that year (FIGURE 5).

Biological Characteristics


Phytoplankton species in Lake Newell have not been identified. In a 1981 survey, a Fish and Wildlife Division biologist considered the standing crop of net plankton to be very low (English 1985). There are few data on the macrophytes in the lake. Aquatic vegetation grows along parts of the shoreline, but the density is low because of the large annual water fluctuations.


The zooplankton was sampled by Fish and Wildlife Division from May to November in 1981 (English 1985). Copepods were the dominant group. The biomass and abundance of benthos from the deepest area of the lake were measured in May and July of 1981 (English 1985). The average total biomass for the four samples collected on each of the two sampling dates was 4.2 g/m2, and average total abundance was 3,676 organisms/m2 . Midge larvae (Chironomidae) accounted for 86% of the total biomass and 63% of the total numbers.


Ten species of fish have been collected in Lake Newell: northern pike, walleye, lake whitefish, yellow perch, white sucker, burbot, rainbow trout, bull trout, brook trout and spottail shiner (English 1985). Lake whitefish eyed-eggs were introduced in 1932, and whitefish quickly became an important part of the commercial harvest. Brook trout were planted in 1938, and cutthroat trout in 1953. The latter apparently have not survived, and other trout species are present only as migrants from the Bow River (English 1985). Attempts to introduce walleye during the 1940s and 1950s also failed. However, several walleye have been caught by the commercial fishery each year from 1983/84 to 1987/88 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Lake Newell is managed for recreational and commercial fisheries. The commercial fishery has operated since at least 1942/43, when records were first kept (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Alta. Rec. Parks 1976). Lake whitefish and northern pike are the most important mercial species and burbot, white suckers, and unspecified trout are caught in small numbers. The largest total catch, 208,250 kg, was taken in 1960/61. Between 1968/69 and 1987/88, the average total catch was 41,532 kg/year. Of this, 88% was lake whitefish and 12% was northern pike.

A creel survey was conducted at Lake Newell from May to August 1985 as part of a survey of the Brooks area (English 1986). Lake Newell was second in popularity to Tilley B Reservoir. Although Lake Newell has a reputation for trophy-sized pike in the 10 kg range, none were recorded in the survey. During the 24 days monitored, 159 anglers were interviewed. They fished for a total of 465.5 hours and caught 68 northern pike, which is a catch rate of 0.15 pike/hour. It was estimated that 731 anglers visited the lake and caught 340 pike in 2,232 hours during the total 101-day survey period.


Soon after the reservoir was first filled in 1914, large colonies of water birds began appearing on the new islands at the southern end

(Finlay and Finlay 1987). At least 100 species of birds are present in Kinbrook Island Provincial Park, and more than 75 species nest in the immediate area of the park. Lake Newell is the most significant area in the region for nesting California and Ring-billed gulls, and Canada Geese also nest there. Double-crested Cormorants nest on the islands and White Pelicans fish the lake and rest on the islands. A colony of Eared Grebes is present south of Pelican Island (Nordstrom 1977).

Mammals found in the area include coyotes, pronghorn antelope, Richardson's ground squirrels and badgers (Finlay and Finlay 1987).

M.E. Bradford


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Kjearsgaard, A.A., T.W. Peters and W.W. Pettapiece. 1983. Soil survey of the County of Newell, Alberta. Alta. Soil Surv. Rep. No. 41, Alta. Inst. Pedol. Rep. No. S-82-41, Ld. Resour. Res. Inst. Contribution No. LRRI 83-48. Agric. Can., Res. Br., Edmonton.

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