Payne 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 is out of date.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 Sheets82H/4
Lat / Long49.1000000, -113.6500000
49°6'N, 113°39'W
Area2.28 km2
Max depth7.3 m
Mean depth3.8 m
Dr. Basin Area24.9 km2
Dam, WeirDam
Drainage BasinOldman River Basin
Camp GroundNone
Boat LaunchPresent
Sport FishRainbow Trout, Bull Trout, Cutthroat Trout, Mountain Whitefish, Arctic Grayling
Trophic StatusNo Data
TP x25 µg/L
CHLORO xNo Data µg/L
TDS x109 mg/L
Photo credit: unknown


Payne Lake is an attractive little offstream reservoir nestled in the foothills of southwestern Alberta in the Municipal District of Cardston. The mountains of Waterton National Park that lie 4 km to the southwest provide a dramatic background for the lake. To reach Payne Lake from the town of Cardston, travel 24 km west on Highway 5 to the hamlet of Mountain View, continue west for 2 km on Highway 5, then drive south for about 3 km on the district road that leads to the lake. The road continues across the dam on the east side of the reservoir (FIGURE 1).

There are no campgrounds on Payne Lake, but there are two day-use areas operated by Alberta Environment. Both are at the east end of the lake, one on the north shore and one on the south shore (FIGURE 2). Both areas provide a boat launch and picnic tables and the area on the south shore has a small pier.

The official spelling of the lake's name has been "Paine" since 1942 (Alta. Cult. Multicult. n.d.). However, requests have been made by local residents since 1972 to change the spelling to "Payne." This was the name of an early settler, Frank Payne, whose name was misspelt in an early surveyor's field book. Signs around the lake say "Payne" but the official version is still "Paine." The lake is also occasionally called Mami Lake.

Before 1942, the area was a shallow slough. That year, the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration of the federal government built an earthfill dam across Mami Creek to create the reservoir. A small earthfill dam was also built across a coulee on the north arm of the lake. Most of the water in the reservoir is diverted from the Belly River about 4 km west of the lake (FIGURE 1). Water is released to canals below each of the dams in the Mountview, Leavitt and Aetna irrigation districts, which lie between the lake and Cardston. The reservoir is now owned and operated by Alberta Environment to support multi-purpose water use, including irrigation.

The water in Payne Lake is usually clear but algae may colour the water green at times and there is dense aquatic plant growth in some areas. The lake is stocked with rainbow trout and provides a good local sport fishery. The use of bait fish is not permitted (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1989). Boating regulations prohibit the operation of power boats for the purpose of towing people on water skis or surfboards (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. 1988).

Drainage Basin Characteristics

The natural drainage basin of Payne Lake provides only a small amount of runoff to the lake, mostly via Mami Creek (Tables 1, 2; FIGURE 1). The drainage basin lies near the edge of the narrow band of foothills east of the Rocky Mountains where the forested hills meet the prairie. Payne Lake lies within an eastward projection of the Groveland Subregion of the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion. The most common habitat type near the lake is fescue grassland, but in low areas and around sloughs there are pockets of trembling aspen, buckbrush, snowberry and rose (Strong and Leggat 1981). The most common land uses are grazing and some cultivation for grain crops. Soils are Black and Dark Brown Chernozemics (Wyatt et al. 1939). The most southwesterly portion of the drainage basin is in Waterton National Park and reaches an altitude of 1,798 m. Here, near the treeline, the vegetation is typical of the Subalpine Ecoregion. Engelmann spruce and lodgepole pine are the dominant trees and soils are Luvisols and Brunisols. At lower elevations, there is an area of Montane Ecoregion, which is typified by Douglas fir. Still lower is the Aspen Parkland Ecoregion, which grades into the Groveland Subregion around Payne Lake.

Most of the water in Payne Lake is diverted from the Belly River, the headwaters of which extend to the alpine regions along the continental divide in Glacier National Park, Montana.

Lake Basin Characteristics

Payne Lake is an irregularly shaped, elongate reservoir lying in a shallow coulee. Numerous side coulees along its shore contribute to its relatively long shoreline (13.7 km, TABLE 2). The deepest area (7.3 m) is near the east dam, but depths over 5 m extend almost the full length of the reservoir (FIGURE 2). There are two small islands and one large island in the lake.

Except for a small contribution from Mami Creek, the water that fills Payne Lake is diverted from the Belly River. The amount diverted depends on irrigation demand in the Mountain View, Leavitt and Aetna irrigation districts and the availability of water in the Belly River. Diversion starts slowly in April, usually remains low in May, then increases in June and remains high through September. It then drops in October and stops in late October or early November (English 1981). From 1974 to 1985, the annual volume diverted averaged 21.6 x 106 m3. The volume varies with demand, from a high of 32.9 x 106 m3 in 1977, a dry year, to a low of 8.252 x 106 m3 in 1978, a wet year (Alta. Envir. n.d.[c]). The residence time of the water in the lake over this period ranged from 0.27 years to 1.08 years.

There are no data on water level fluctuations in the reservoir except for a brief period from February to September in 1978, when fluctuations were less than 1 m (English 1981). Water levels can be drawn down to allow maintenance work on the control structures or to facilitate fish management. On these occasions, a small pond is left with a surface area of 0.76 km2 and a maximum depth of 1.5 m (English 1981). Water has been drawn down for structure maintenance three times since 1942, the last time in 1979.

Water Quality

Data on the water quality of Payne Lake are sparse. The lake was sampled twice by Alberta Environment in 1983 (Alta. Envir. n.d.[b]) and seven times from February 1978 through March 1979 for selected variables (English 1981). As well, Fish and Wildlife Division samples it for dissolved oxygen concentrations once or twice in most winters (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.).

Payne Lake has fresh water. The alkalinity is relatively low compared to many prairie lakes, reflecting the input of water from a mountain river. The dominant ions are calcium and bicarbonate (TABLE 3).

Despite its exposure to the strong westerly winds that sweep down from the mountains, Payne Lake does occasionally become weakly thermally stratified. This was evident in the upper 3 m in 1983 and was noted in June and August 1978. Dissolved oxygen may be slightly depleted in the deeper water in the reservoir. On 7 September 1978, dissolved oxygen concentrations at a depth of 6.5 m were only 1 mg/L.

The reservoir freezes in winter but occasionally becomes ice-free as early as late February. The dissolved oxygen concentration remains high (7 to 12 mg/L) near the surface. Near the bottom, the dissolved oxygen concentration is usually high (over 6 mg/L), even in late winter in many years. In some years, however, the concentration in the bottom stratum drops to 2 mg/L. In the winter of 1979/80, when the water level was severely drawn down to leave a maximum depth of 1.5 m, the dissolved oxygen level remained high enough to maintain trout.

Payne Lake has a moderate phosphorus concentration (TABLE 4). Chlorophyll a concentrations have not been monitored, but algal blooms are common in the summer (English 1981; 1988). There are insufficient data to determine the trophic status of Payne Lake, but the presence of algal blooms, the dense macrophyte beds and high zooplankton biomass all indicate that it is a fairly productive lake.

Biological Characteristics


There are no data on phytoplankton species in Payne Lake. Aquatic macrophyte beds are extensive in shallow water and are a nuisance to anglers trying to fish from shore. Macrophyte species have not been identified.


During a Fish and Wildlife Division study in the summer of 1978, the mean wet weight of total zooplankton in Payne Lake was 0.02 mg/L, with 283 zooplankters per litre. This density is relatively high for a small prairie reservoir (English 1981). Benthic invertebrates have not been sampled.


Ten species of fish have been collected from Payne Lake (English 1981). Nine of these are indigenous to the Belly River watershed. Cutthroat trout, bull trout, mountain whitefish and Arctic grayling occur as migrants; burbot, white sucker, longnose sucker, lake chub and fathead minnows are resident. One species-rainbow trout has been introduced.

Rainbow trout were introduced to Payne Lake in 1942, the year the reservoir was created. Approximately 300,000 rainbow trout have been stocked annually since 1952; 431,500 were stocked in 1987 (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.; 1986; 1987; Alta. Ld. For. 1952-1974; Alta. Rec. Parks Wild. 1975-1978; Alta. En. Nat. Resour. 1979-1985). Angling success has been reasonable; in a 1974 creel census over four one-week periods from 23 May to 1 July, the average catch was 0.07 trout/angler-hour (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Growth rates of rainbow trout are similar to those of pothole lakes in southern Alberta; in August 1978, the average age 1+ fish had a fork length of 28.1 cm and a weight of 259 g (Barton 1979). Competition for food by the large sucker population is thought to reduce the potential growth rate. The catch from test nets was 90% suckers and 10% trout (Alta. For. Ld. Wild. n.d.). Elimination or even reduction of the sucker population in Payne Lake is not considered to be feasible because suckers could easily return via the diversion from the Belly River (Fitch 1988).


The area around Payne Lake provides excellent habitat for most of the wildlife species found in the southern foothills of Alberta. Elk, white-tailed deer and mule deer are common, and black bears visit the area, as do coyotes and foxes. The lake provides nesting habitat for dabbling and diving ducks and Canada Geese (Fitch 1988).

J.M. Crosby


Alberta Culture and Multiculturalism. n.d. Hist. Resour. Div., Hist. Sites Serv. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

Alberta Energy and Natural Resources. 1979-1985. Fish planting list. Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

Alberta Environment. n.d.[a]. Devel. Op. Div., Headworks Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

-----. n.d.[b]. Envir. Assess. Div., Envir. Qlty. Monit. Br. Unpubl. data, Edmonton.

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

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

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-----. 1986, 1987. Fish planting list. Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

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

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

Alberta Lands and Forests. 1952-1974. Fish planting list. Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

Alberta Recreation, Parks and Wildlife. 1975-1978. Fish planting list. Fish Wild. Div., Edmonton.

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

Barton, B.A. 1979. Angler harvest of rainbow trout from two stocking rates in Paine Lake, Alberta. Alta. Rec. Parks Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Calgary.

Energy, Mines and Resources Canada. 1971. National topographic series 1:50 000 82H/4 (1971). Surv. Map. Br., Ottawa.

English, W.G. 1981. A limnological survey of Paine Lake Reservoir. Alta. En. Nat. Resour., Fish Wild. Div., Lethbridge.

-----. 1988. Alta. For. Ld. Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Lethbridge. Pers. comm.

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

Fitch, L. 1988. Alta. For. Ld. Wild., Fish Wild. Div., Lethbridge. Pers. comm.

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

Wyatt, F.A., W.E. Bowser and W. Odynsky. 1939. Soil survey of Lethbridge and Pincher Creek sheets. Univ. Alta. Bull. No. 32. Univ. Alta., College Agric., Edmonton.