Chain Lakes Reservoir

Basic Info
Map Sheets82J/1, 8
Lat / Long50.2500000, -114.2000000
50°15'N, 114°12'W
Area3.12 km2
Max depth10.4 m
Mean depth5.4 m
Dr. Basin Area209 km2
Dam, WeirDam
Drainage BasinOldman River Basin
Camp GroundPresent
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishRainbow Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Brown Trout, Brook Trout, Bull Trout, Mountain Whitefish
Trophic StatusNo Data
TP xNo Data µg/L
CHLORO xNo Data µg/L
TDS x313 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Chain Lakes Reservoir is a long, narrow water body set in some of the most beautiful foothills country in Alberta. Located in Improvement District No. 6, between the Porcupine Hills and the front range of the Rocky Mountains, the reservoir is surrounded by natural open grasslands dotted with trembling aspen. In the distance, tree-covered hills and mountain peaks rise as a dramatic backdrop. To reach Chain Lakes, as it is called locally, travel south from the city of Calgary on Highway 2 for 68 km, then continue west from the town of Nanton on Secondary Road 533 for 38 km to Chain Lakes Provincial Park (FIGURE 1). One alternate route to the park is to drive south from the town of Black Diamond for 47 km on Highway 22; another alternate route is to drive 95 km north of the town of Pincher Creek on Highway 22.

The reservoir was named for the three Chain Lakes that nearly filled the area now covered by the reservoir. These lakes were fed by numerous springs; in winter, the ice was often so thin that buffalo crossing the lakes would break through and drown (Finlay and Finlay 1987). Cattle grazing has been the major land use since the first ranches were established in the late 1800s. In 1957, the provincial government approached the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration (PFRA) to consider developing storage on Willow Creek to ensure a continuous water supply downstream, mostly to guarantee municipal supply for the towns of Claresholm and Granum (Agric. Can. 1961). In 1966, the PFRA built two dams, the south one across Willow Creek and the north one across Meinsinger Creek. By 1967, the reservoir was full.

Chain Lakes Provincial Park covers 409 ha on the east side of the southern end of the reservoir. Both day-use and camping facilities are provided year-round. The park has a campground with 140 sites, tap water, a telephone, picnic tables and shelters, group camping facilities (by reservation only), a sewage disposal station, a boat launch and a children's fish pond (Alta. Hotel Assoc. 1988). Power boats are allowed on the reservoir, but all vessels are restricted from some posted areas; the speed of power boats is limited to 12 km/hour in other posted areas and boats are not allowed to pull water skiers or surfboards in other posted areas (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988).

The lake is stocked annually with rainbow trout and a moderate sport fishery has developed. The use of bait fish is not permitted in any water in the drainage basin. All streams in the basin are closed to fishing from November through May, no bait of any sort is allowed in streams and no rainbow or cutthroat trout under 25 cm caught in a stream may be kept (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989).

Chain Lakes Reservoir is attractive for recreation. Algae are rarely conspicuous but the water is frequently turbid from silt, which erodes from the east shore. The density of aquatic plants is very low. Popular activities are fishing in winter and summer, boating and hiking. Because the reservoir is located in a zone of rapid transition from grassland to mountain, it provides a variety of habitats for exploring and birdwatching. Underground springs and bedrock outcrops create some unique habitats within the provincial park, where 260 species of vascular plants have been recorded, including Jacob's ladder, scorpion weed and other interesting plants (Crack and Danielson 1974).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The large drainage basin (209 km2) of Chain Lakes Reservoir is 67 times the area of the reservoir (Tables 1, 2; FIGURE 1). The small portion of the drainage basin east of the reservoir extends to a 1600-m-high crest in the Porcupine Hills. This area, in the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion, lies on glacial morainal till with slopes of up to 30%. The vegetation is composed of trembling aspen groves attractively interspersed with open fescue grassland. Soils are Black Chernozemics under the fescue and Eutric Brunisols under the aspen (Strong 1979). Two extensive outcrops of Porcupine Hills sandstone of Tertiary Age occur near the north end of the provincial park (Crack and Danielson 1974; Finlay and Finlay 1987).

The Aspen Parkland Ecoregion surrounds the reservoir and extends westward to the Bow-Crow Forest Reserve Boundary. The reservoir lies in a valley draped with glaciolacustrine sediments. Near the reservoir, the slopes range from 0 to 9% and willow is interspersed with trembling aspen and areas of fescue grass. The reservoir itself is bordered by a narrow area of glaciofluvial eroded channel; willows and grasses underlain by Humic Gleysols predominate. West of the Aspen Parkland is an area of Montane Ecoregion; this is the smallest ecoregion in Alberta and is found in only 0.5% of the province. Here, bedrock outcrops and dry grassy slopes are interspersed with Douglas fir, lodgepole pine and trembling aspen. Slopes range up to 60% and soils are Eutric Brunisols. Up the slope from the Montane Ecoregion is the Subalpine Ecoregion. Slopes are 15 to 45% and are covered with residual materials that support forests of lodgepole pine, Engelmann spruce and alpine fir. The top of the Livingstone Range extends into the Alpine Ecoregion, where altitudes reach up to 2,450 m. Unstable residual slopes of 45 to 60% support little vegetation, and the sparse soils that have developed are Regosols (Strong 1979; Strong and Leggat 1981).

There has been almost no cultivation of land in the basin; the open areas shown in Figure 1 are almost all natural grasslands. Most of the land in the basin is Crown land, and much of the area around the reservoir has been leased for grazing. Some of the land bordering the north end of the reservoir is privately owned (FIGURE 2). There are no population centres in the basin.

Willow Creek, the major inflow, flows both in and out of the reservoir near the South Dam. Meinsinger Creek, a much smaller creek, enters the reservoir near the north end and flows out of it at the north end. Several small creeks drain the eastern portion of the drainage basin (FIGURE 2).

Lake Basin Characteristics

Chain Lakes Reservoir is a long (10.7 km), narrow lake; most of it is less than 500 m across (FIGURE 2). It fills a steep-sided valley that originally was occupied by three small lakes that drained into Willow Creek and thence to the Oldman River near the town of Fort Macleod. The South Dam, built in 1966 across Willow Creek, backed water up into the Chain Lakes valley. Before the North Dam was built, also in 1966, Meinsinger Creek drained to the north into Stimson Creek, which empties into the Highwood River, a tributary of the Bow River. Now the North Dam impounds Meinsinger Creek and allows the reservoir level to be raised to higher levels than those that would be possible with only the South Dam.

The residence time of water in the reservoir is estimated to be about half a year (TABLE 2), but because Willow Creek is "short-circuited" through the south end, the length of time water remains in the central and northern portions may be much longer. The estimated residence time also does not consider groundwater inflow, which is known to be significant although it has not been quantified.

Most of the water leaving the reservoir flows into Willow Creek via a low-level conduit in the South Dam. Riparian flow is released to maintain Willow Creek but the volume of the discharge varies with water supply and demand. When the full supply level (FSL) of the reservoir is exceeded, water flows through the spillway on the west side of the South Dam. Water is also released through the North Dam to maintain Meinsinger and Stimson creeks, but the volume of this release is variable (Alta. Envir. n.d.[a]).

The water level of the reservoir has been monitored since 1977 (FIGURE 3). During this time the reservoir has been operated to fill as much as possible in the spring, then to release water slowly through the summer and winter to maintain a stable water supply for Claresholm and Granum and to provide water for other uses, including stockwatering and irrigation. The amount of runoff is variable and has not always been sufficient to bring the reservoir up to FSL. For example, in 1984, the highest level achieved was still 1.5 m below FSL (FIGURE 3). The large drawdown in 1985 was the result of a severe drought in southern Alberta in 1983 and 1984. Withdrawals were required to maintain flow to the downstream towns while the volume of inflow was much lower than normal. Drought conditions in 1987 and 1988 led to low water levels in late 1988. The bottom of the reservoir slopes steeply except for the small area where Willow Creek enters so a drawdown of 3 m reduces the lake area by about 15% from the area at full supply level (FIGURE 4).

Water Quality

The water quality of Chain Lakes Reservoir was sampled by Alberta Environment twice in August 1972 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[b]). The reservoir has well-buffered, fresh water. The dominant ions are bicarbonate and sodium (TABLE 3).

Chain Lakes Reservoir probably stratifies intermittently in the summer. The only profile data were taken on 17 May 1978 (MacNeill 1978). At that time, the temperature varied from 8.8°C at the surface to 8.2°C at the bottom; the dissolved oxygen concentration was 10.4 mg/L at the surface and decreased to 8.4 mg/L at the bottom. Winter dissolved oxygen concentration has been monitored in late February or early March every year from 1972 to 1980 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.) and in most winters until 1988 (Bishop 1989). The concentration of dissolved oxygen at a depth of 1 m has never been less than 9 mg/L. The lowest concentration recorded was 6 mg/L at 4.3 m in 1974. No winterkill of fish has been recorded for Chain Lakes (Bishop 1989).

There are no data on the nutrient status of this water body. The water is usually clear and algae are not conspicuous, but the water is occasionally turbid due to suspended sediment from bank erosion.

Biological Characteristics


There is no information on algae in Chain Lakes Reservoir. Aquatic plants are scarce; none were collected by grappling in May 1978 (MacNeill 1978).


The zooplankton was sampled by Fish and Wildlife Division on 17 May 1978 from a depth of 9.5 m to the surface with a No. 40 Wisconsin-style plankton net made of No. 20 silk bolting cloth (MacNeill 1978). Rotifers were most abundant, with copepods next in abundance. No cladocerans were found.

Benthic samples were taken from a depth of 10 m on 17 May 1978 by Fish and Wildlife Division (MacNeill 1978). Aquatic earthworms (Oligochaeta) were most abundant (3,056/m2), followed by midge (Chironomidae) larvae (538/m2).


White suckers and rainbow trout are abundant in Chain Lakes Reservoir. Other sport fish that migrate into the reservoir via Willow Creek and which are found occasionally include cutthroat trout, brown trout, brook trout, bull trout and mountain whitefish. Forage fish species include fathead minnow, brook stickleback, longnose dace and lake chub. Longnose sucker also occur (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; Walton 1979).

Since 1967, rainbow trout have been stocked annually in the reservoir by Fish and Wildlife Division (Radford 1978; Alta. En. Nat. Resour. 1979-1985; Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1986-1988). The trout in the reservoir thrived for the first five or six years when nutrient levels were high after the initial flooding of the valley. Trout growth rates were good and the angler success rate (0.30 trout/hour in 1970) was sufficient to attract numerous anglers. However, by 1970, white suckers became the dominant species in the reservoir and appeared to out-compete the trout for food: 1978 test netting caught 84% suckers (Radford 1978) and 1979 test netting caught 93% suckers (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). In May 1978, the growth rate of rainbow trout was slow; age 4+ fish had a mean fork length of 259 mm and a mean weight of 193 g (MacNeill 1978). Angler success had declined to 0.24 trout/hour in 1977, and anglers reported catching up to 10 times as many suckers as trout.

To give the rainbow trout stocked in the reservoir a competitive edge, the fish introduced since 1978 have been approximately 12-cm long rather than fingerlings. However, suckers still dominate the fish community in the reservoir and in 1987 angler success had dropped to 0.17 rainbow trout per hour (based on 301 anglers) (Bishop 1989).


The diverse habitat of the Chain Lakes watershed is home to a wide variety of wildlife, from black and grizzly bears in the mountains to typical prairie animals in the grasslands around the reservoir. The marsh area created by seepage from the South Dam supports a diversity of plants and wildlife in the park, including 57 species of birds. Few waterbirds nest on the reservoir because aquatic vegetation is sparse, but Common Mergansers and Red-necked Grebes remain all summer and Common Loons have been seen nesting. Elk overwinter near the reservoir and moose and deer are present all year. Six colonies of Columbian ground squirrels in the park mark the eastern extent of this species in the area (Finlay and Finlay 1987).

J.M. Crosby


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Radford, D.S. 1978. Chain Lakes Reservoir: Fishery management plan. Alta. Rec. Park Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Lethbridge.

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

Walton, B.D. 1979. The reproductive biology, early life history, and growth of white suckers, Catastomus commersoni, and longnose suckers, C. catostomus, in the Willow Creek-Chain Lakes system, Alberta. MSc thesis. Univ. Alta., Edmonton.