Most ’prairie pothole’ lakes slowly dry up and blow away

EDMONTON — Every spring, wardens at Elk Island National Park just east of Edmonton patrol the shores of Astotin Lake to clean up debris exposed by receding water.

EDMONTON — Every spring, wardens at Elk Island National Park just east of Edmonton patrol the shores of Astotin Lake to clean up debris exposed by receding water. The junk that shows up on the ever-lengthening beach provides a kind of index for just how long it has been since water levels were that low.

“This year, I found a tire from a Model A car,” says Clayton Szafron. “It’s kind of disconcerting.”

Astotin isn’t alone.

The verdant parkland between Edmonton and Saskatoon was once home to dozens of so-called “prairie pothole” lakes — a type of lake unique to the Prairies that is fed only by rainwater and snowmelt. Now, whether from natural precipitation cycles, land use changes or as a consequence of climate change, most are drying up.

Grass grows under boat docks. Lakefront cabins are now field-front.

At Cooking Lake, southeast of Edmonton, float plane pilots who have safely landed for decades are warned to watch for obstacles created by low water levels.

In Tofield, Alberta, the annual Snow Goose Festival — a popular tourist event based on the arrival of tens of thousands of migrating snow geese — had to be scrubbed a couple of years ago, after Beaverhill Lake nearly disappeared.

“People would come from Edmonton to Tofield, so they’re already driving an hour or so, then we’d have to put them on a bus and drive for another hour or so to find geese,” says area naturalist Deanne Cox.

Six out of the 10 such lakes in Central Alberta that are monitored by Alberta Environment are below normal levels by an average of a metre. That doesn’t include Beaverhill or Astotin, which have lost more than one-quarter of their depth over the last decade.

“Most of the lakes have been going down quite significantly pretty much over the whole Prairie region,” says Garth van der Kamp, an Environment Canada scientist who published a paper on the issue in 2008. Eight of the 10 lakes he examined in Alberta and Saskatchewan are in long-term decline, and some of them have been since the 1920s.

Experts hasten to point out that water in these types of lakes has always fluctuated.

Some lakes are stable and some are even rising.

Devils Lake in North Dakota is filling up so quickly that state authorities want to drain some of its waters into the Red River system.

Experts suspect the long-term drying and warming of the prairie ecosystem is the main reason for the shrinking lakes. Data produced by the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Administration show that, with the exception of a few wet years such as 2005, precipitation in the parkland belt heading southeast from Edmonton has been consistently below normal for a long time.

Land-use practices may also be affecting lake levels in ways not yet fully understood.

The big question is whether the lakes are the temporary victims of cycles that will eventually swing the other way or if they’re being dried out by more permanent climate change.

“There are going to be innumerable consequences (to climate change),” says Cara Van Marck of Alberta Environment.

What is certain is that it will take more than one wet year to refill the prairie potholes.

“If it got wetter for a number of years you could see the lakes rising, says van der Kamp. ”It would take quite a long wet period.“”

“You need to replenish the entire watershed,” says Van Marck.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Whistle Stop Cafe owner Christopher Scott and his sister Melodie pose for a photo at the Mirror restaurant. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Alberta Health Services delivers ‘closure order’ to Mirror restaurant

Alberta Health Services says it has delivered a closure order to a… Continue reading

Flags bearers hold the Canadian flag high during the Flags of Remembrance ceremony in Sylvan Lake in this October file photo. (Photo by Sean McIntosh/Advocate staff)
New project to pay tribute to Canadians killed in Afghanistan

Flags of Remembrance scheduled for Sept. 11

A health-care worker prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in Toronto on Thursday, January 7, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Alberta vaccine rollout expanding to front-line health-care workers

More than 240,000 eligible health-care workers can begin booking vaccine appointments starting… Continue reading

File photo
The Red Deer Rebels will have three new assistant coaches when the WHL regular season starts on Friday. Brad Flynn (left), will be on the bench alongside fellow assistant Ryan Colville (right) head coach Brent Sutter (middle). (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Sutter steps down as Red Deer Rebels head coach

Red Deer Rebels Owner, GM and head coach Brent Sutter has stepped… Continue reading

Red Deer-South MLA Jason Stephan is among those who have signed an open letter criticizing the government’s return to stricter health measures. (Advocate file photo).
Updated: Kenney tells UCP caucus COVID-19 dissent OK, breaking health rules means expulsion

15 MLAs released letter on Wednesday critical of new health restrictions

A woman pays her repects at a roadblock in Portapique, N.S. on Wednesday, April 22, 2020. The joint public inquiry in response to the April mass shooting in Nova Scotia has announced a mandate that includes a probe of the RCMP response as well as the role of gender-based violence in the tragedy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Creating permanent memorial to Nova Scotia mass shooting victims a delicate task

PORTAPIQUE, N.S. — Creating a memorial for those killed in Nova Scotia’s… Continue reading

Conservative leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, April 6, 2020. Top Tory leaders of past and present will speak with supporters today about what a conservative economic recovery from COVID-19 could look like. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Erin O’Toole says ‘I didn’t hide who I was’ running for Conservative leader

OTTAWA — Erin O’Toole assured Conservative supporters that he never hid who… Continue reading

Calgary Flames' Johnny Gaudreau, second from left, celebrates his goal with teammates, from left to right, Matthew Tkachuk, Noah Hanifin and Rasmus Andersson, of Sweden, during second period NHL hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers, in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, April 10, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal
Jacob Markstrom earns shutout as Flames blank Oilers 5-0 in Battle of Alberta

CALGARY — It took Sean Monahan breaking out of his goal-scoring slump… Continue reading

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia's opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan's government, but they say Monday's throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province's economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

VICTORIA — British Columbia’s opposition parties acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented… Continue reading

A grizzly bear walks on a treadmill as Dr. Charles Robbins, right, offers treats as rewards at Washington State University's Bear Research, Education, and Conservation Center in this undated handout photo. Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails like those commonly used by people, which can affect land management practices in wild areas, says an expert who has written a paper on their travel patterns. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO, Anthony Carnahan *MANDATORY CREDIT*
Grizzly bears prefer walking on gentle slopes at a leisurely pace like humans: study

VANCOUVER — Grizzly bears seem to favour gently sloping or flat trails… Continue reading

FILE - In this July 27, 2020, file photo, nurse Kathe Olmstead prepares a shot that is part of a possible COVID-19 vaccine, developed by the National Institutes of Health and Moderna Inc., in Binghamton, N.Y. Moderna said Monday, Nov. 16, 2020, its COVID-19 shot provides strong protection against the coronavirus that's surging in the U.S. and around the world. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink, File)
The COVID-19 wasteland: searching for clues to the pandemic in the sewers

OTTAWA — When Ottawa Public Health officials are trying to decide whether… Continue reading

Researchers look over a map aboard the Finnish icebreaker MSV Nordica as it sets sail in the North Pacific Ocean toward the Bering Strait to traverse the Arctic's Northwest Passage on July 6, 2017. The Canadian government wants more study on the impacts of banning heavy fuel oil in the Arctic before it signs on to an international agreement to do so. It has been 16 months since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and then U.S. President Barack Obama jointly committed to phase down the use of heavy fuel oils in the Arctic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, David Goldman
‘You cannot claim any more:’ Russia seeks bigger piece of Arctic Ocean seabed

IQALUIT, Nunavut — Russia wants to stretch out imaginary lines on the… Continue reading

The Queen, centre, Prince Philip, right, and Princess Anne relax as they sail to Victoria, B.C., on May 3, 1971 accompanied out of Vancouver harbour by numerous small craft. Prince Philip, the Queen's husband of more than 70 years, passed away at Windsor Castle on Friday, Buckingham Palace announced. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Bill Croke
Andrew: Philip’s death has left ‘huge void’ in queen’s life

LONDON — The death of Prince Philip has left a “huge void”… Continue reading

Most Read