There has been discussion for much of the past year regarding the continuing rise of the Quill Lakes. From their 2006 levels of approximately 516m (Big Quill) and 518m (Little Quill), the lakes have reached 520.3m above sea level, covering an area of 75,059 hectares. The lakes are the highest they have ever been officially recorded, although information exists that shows they have been higher.
In 1962, Big Quill was only 2.5m deep at its deepest point, while Little Quill was 1.7m. This trans-lates to approximately 515m above sea level for Big Quill. Over the next decade, the water level fluctuated by about 0.5m either way.
Little Quill’s lakebed elevation is slightly higher than that of Little Quill, so the flow of water normally proceeds from Little to Big. In the early 1920s, the water level of both lakes was approximately 519m elevation. Water levels appear to have dropped until the late 1950s, when Little Quill again rose to about 519m in 1957, and Big Quill to around 517m. Drops and fluctuations continued until another rise started in the mid-2000s, with a catastrophic rise in 2011. Rises in Fishing Lake, Waldsea Lake and Lenore Lake were also seen at that time.
The Quill Lakes are considered closed-basin lakes; that is, the water runs in but does not run out again. Three things determine the water level in closed-basin lakes: precipitation falling directly on the lake, evaporation of water from the surface (itself a function of the surface area of the lake), and runoff from the watershed. Runoff includes water redirected from sloughs and potholes on agricultural land into the natural drainage system of creeks. Runoff can also be affected by conversion of land from summerfallow to tall stubble or to conservation lands, which would reduce runoff. Ditching and damming both have an effect on the runoff level. “While such artificial influences may have relatively small impacts for high-runoff years, it is conceivable that small but persistent changes of runoff to the lakes could lead to long-term upward or downward trends in lake water levels.” (Long Term Water Level Changes in Closed-basin Lakes of the Canadian Prairies; Van der Kamp, Keir & Evans, 2008.)
Sand deposits and dunes, remnants of old shorelines, can still be found on farmland north and east of the lakes. The levels have gone up and down, from nearly dry to possibly even higher than today’s levels. Homesteaders filed on land that, according to an 1880s survey, was available; yet when they actually got out here the land was under water.
Looking at a contour map of the area, it is apparent that while there are some high banks, most of the basin surrounding the lakes has a very low slope. This means that a small rise in water level causes the water to spread out rapidly and cover a large area. In some areas around the lake, a 50cm rise in level could cover whole sections of land.
In 1944, Little Quill Lake was reportedly almost dry, with only a small area of water. This water rested southwest of Paswegin but during a high wind it would shift position around the lakebed.
In 1912-13 the water levels were high and the eastern shore of Little Quill was half a mile due south of Ruthven Burnett’s house (located on E11-34-14-W2).
According to L. Wade Wirtz, who wrote an article on the Quill Lakes for the Wadena News in the Jubilee year 1955, the original outlet was southwest of the lakes and was cut off by the CPR when that rail line was built, so a temporary outlet was created near Dafoe to Long Lake. This is considered to be the outlet that the lakes will use when they start to overflow.
Whooping cranes, swans and sandhill cranes were often seen around the lakes in the early years of homesteading. Grass fires used to sweep across the dry bottoms. Buffalo travelled in the area, leaving behind wallows and rubbing stones. There was even a buffalo pound in the area.
It is common knowledge that the Quill Lakes now have their own weather, often splitting storms around the lakes, especially coming from the northwest. Provincial infrastructure as well as rural and municipal is threatened by the rising water. Farms are threatened and agricultural and hay lands are disappearing as the lakes continue to rise. Bird habitats, such as that of the endangered piping plover, are under the rising water. There are reports that the alkalinity of the lakes has dropped enough, with the influx of fresh water, that fish can be found in the lakes again.
But what is causing this rise in the lake levels? In future articles we investigate not only the effects of the rising water, but the possible causes.
By Charlene Wirtz
Some Facts about the Quill Lakes
—Big Quill drains an area of about 8760 square kilometres, while Little Quill’s drainage basin is about 4490 square kilometres. In comparison, Fishing Lake’s drainage area is about 634 square kilometres.
—Big Quill was 2.5m deep (elevation approximately 515m) in 1962 while Little Quill was 1.7m deep (approximately 517m elevation).
—Little Quill has a slightly higher lakebed elevation than Big Quill, so water can flow from Little to Big.
—In the 1920s, the lakes were seeded with cisco, a type of whitefish that survived for many years until the water grew too shallow.
—In 1970 the lakes were declared “dead,” as the salinity was high.
—Around 1980 the lakes were thought to be receding without any chance of water influx.