Whitewater Lake

Whitewater Lake is a globally significant Important Bird Area (IBA), situated between the towns of Deloraine and Boissevain in southwestern Manitoba, Canada. It is known as a major staging area for waterfowl, shorebirds, and Tundra Swans. Once known ‘White Lake’ because of its white alkali flats, it has been reported that Whitewater Lake provides habitat for over 110 species of birds as well as over 40 species of other wildlife.

As a result of the high biodiversity found at Whitewater Lake, it has received a number of designations:


  • History

    The Whitewater Lake catchment basin is located between the towns of Boissevain and Deloraine in the southwestern corner of Manitoba, north of Turtle Mountain Provincial Park. It is an alkaline lake that may contain no water for two or three years at a time during dry cycles; during normal years it covers 6,070 hectares, but can be as high as 10,320 hectares (and two metres deep) during years with increased run-off. Over the past 100 years there have been several decades, such as the 1930s and 1980s, in which the lake was dry most of the time. Several small creeks drain into Whitewater Lake, but there is no major natural outlet. The flat terrain surrounding the lake is used for agricultural production. A small rare herbaceous plant (Heliotropium curassavicum) is found here.

    At the east end of the lake, Ducks Unlimited (DU) have constructed a number of dykes, creating basins or wetland cells that attempt to stabilize water levels for nesting and migrating waterfowl.

    In 1993 a conceptual plan was developed between the Manitoba Department of Natural Resources, the Turtle Mountain Conservation District and Ducks Unlimited Canada to jointly develop a wildlife viewing facility adjacent to the Ducks Unlimited wetland cell project. The facility allows the general public improved access to the Whitewater Lake area to view and appreciate wildlife and the surroundings of this natural area.

    Whitewater Lake has a tremendous diversity of flora and fauna and is a popular area for naturalists and hunters. The development of the wetland cells has guaranteed a site for wildlife observation and interpretation of the area.


    The Canadian Important Bird Areas Program (IBA) was established by the Canada Birdlife Partners, the Canadian Nature Federation and Bird Studies Canada, as part of an international effort to identify and conserve sites important to all bird species worldwide. In Manitoba, the IBA Program is being delivered and administered by the Manitoba Naturalists Society. Conservation planning began in the Manitoba in August 1999.

    Whitewater Lake is recognized as a Canadian Important Bird Area of global significance. Whitewater Lake provides habitat for over 110 species of birds as well as over 40 species of other wildlife. There are at least 8 bird species that meet IBA population criteria at the globally significant level.


    The goals of the program are to:

    1. Indentify a network of sites that conserve the natural diversity of Canadian bird species and are critical to the long-term viability of naturally occuring bird populations.

    2. To determine the type of protection or stewardship required for each site.

    3. To ensure the conservation of each site through partnerships with local stakeholder groups who develop and implement an on-the-ground community conservation plan.


    Avian Botulism

    Avian Botulism can be viewed as a naturally occurring threat to bird populations, especially waterfowl and shorebirds. Whitewater Lake is susceptible to botulism outbreaks, such as in 1996 with it was estimated that as many as 117,289 bird carcasses were collected after a botulism outbreak. Pratt (1996) reported that during the summer of 1996 approximately 84,220 ducks and 34,240 others (shorebirds, coots, grebes, geese, and others) died of botulism. A high number of American Coots and grebes were collected during the 1996 clean-up efforts. Recent data indicate that 49,000 (1997), 19,000 (1998) and 15,000 (1999) birds were lost to avian botulism at Whitewater Lake.

    Avian botulism results from a food poisoning like neurotoxin produced predominately by the bacterium, Clostridium botulinum Type C. The organism is a strict anaerobe which forms dormant spores in the absence of oxygen and other adverse environmental condition. Spores of Type C botulism are widely distributed in wetland sediments and in the tissues of aquatic insects, mollusks and vertebrates. Despite the widespread distribution of Type C botulism spores outbreaks of avian botulism are sporadic and unpredictable.


    Whitewater Lake is a catchment basin with no water outlet. Some landowners would like to have an outlet for the lake established. Conflicts have existed for many years between landowners and conservation organizations regarding management of water levels. Water levels in the lake determine property lines. There is a continuing interest by some landowners to construct a water outlet.


    Pesticide runoff from adjacent agricultural fields is identified as a threat to Whitewater Lake. Fertilizer and pesticides from both surface and subsurface flow is also a threat. It is unknown if any agency is monitoring pesticide levels in the basin. The potential for the herbicides to drift though the air and contaminate wetlands such as Whitewater Lake is also a concern.

    Oil and Gas Development

    The center portion of Whitewater Lake has partial protection from logging and hydro-electric development but is not protected from oil and gas development. There is interest in oil extraction in the region. Record of oil lease and drilling adjacent to the lake go back to the 1950’s and 1960’s. Oil and gas developments may have deleterious impacts in avifauna habitat. Possible spills and seepages would degrade the water quality.

    Agricultural Practices

    Agricultural practices outside the WMA continue to result in the loss of perennial cover as some landowners convert pastureland into annual crops. Grazing has resulted in waterfowl habitat destruction in some years. In 1970, Ransom and Hochbaum (1972) reported several miles of habitat between the waters edge and private lands was heavily grazed, in many cases without permit. The results were stands of barley grass, and gumweed which provide poor nesting cover for waterfowl.

    Exotic Invasive Weeds

    Globalization has resulted in an accelerated rate of biota transfer between continents. Many of these alien introductions have had economic and ecological consequences. Invasive alien species are the greatest threat to the biological ecosystem second only to habitat loss. weeds of concern include Canada Thistle, Purple Loosestrife, Flowering Rush, Leafy Spruge and Salt Cedar. Kochia is a noxious weed that has proliferated in the general area. Other exotic invasive species of concern include Eurasian water-milfoil which was found in North Dakota along the Sheyenne River in 1996 and Salt Cedar which was introduced from Eurasia in the 1800’s as an ornamental.

    Purple Loosestrife has Noxious Weed Status and can be found throughout southern Manitoba. Purple Loosestrife is not currently found in Whitewater Lake. Efforts to prevent an invasion of Purple Loosestrife should target awareness activities.

    Flowering Rush is an aquatic plant that most often grows as an emergent on wet soil or in shallow water to about one meter deep. The species can also grow as a terrestrial plant on drier area, but emergent and terrestrial plants are identical in appearance. Flowering Rush has invaded several aquatic habitats in Manitoba. Whitewater Lake should be monitored annually for Flowering Rush infestations.

    Salt Cedar is a deciduous or evergreen shrub or a small tree, usually 5 to 20 feet tall that can cause enormous damage to aquatic ecosystems. Damage by Salt Cedar includes the displacement of the extremely valuable cottonwood, willow, seepwillow, baccharis, mesquite and other native plant communities, often by dense monotypic thickets of Salt Cedar. Also, it uses great amounts of ground water and lowers water tables, causing springs to dry up and native plants to perish. Salt Cedar infestations can be found in the northern parts of Montana and is expanding its range northward toward the Whitewater Lake area.

    Leafy Spruge infestations in southwestern Manitoba already impact several vulnerable species protected under Manitoba Protected Species Act including the Western Spiderwort, Baird’s Sparrow and Small White Lady Slipper. A Leafy Spurge infestation around Whitewater Lake degrades available grassland habitat. Current infestation levels in the area are categorized as light.


    Site: Whitewater Lake, CAMB015
    Location: 49° 15′ 26 N, 100° 19′ 29 W
    Elevation: 457 to 460 m
    Biome: Mixed-grass Prairie
    Size: 6,070 to 10,320 hectares

    Whitewater Lake is in southwestern Manitoba. The two main settlements around the lake are Deloraine and Boissevain.

    Soils of the Whitewater Association are developed upon lucustrine sediments. Streams carrying water run-off dumped inorganic material in the lake resulting in sedimentary deposits of sand, silt and clay within the basin. During the time when the lake was at its largest size it apparently had two outlets known as Elgin Creek (northwest of Boissevain) and Medora Creek (north of Deloraine). Post glacial streams once had well defined channels ending at the shoreline of the lake. These streams have since deposited their loads of suspended materials forming alluvial fans, so that the streams end as far as four miles from the shoreline hence the lake has no water outlets.

    The topography of Whitewater Lake is generally flat. There are two pronounced sandbars in the northeast corner of the lake with a small vegetated mud bar. There is one island known as Sexton’s Island on the north shore. The region is of the Mixed-grass Prairie Biome, generally dry, and experiences annual moisture deficits of about 4-inches.

    The dominant nesting and roosing cover is in the form of cattails, bulrushes and Whitetop grass. Upland of the lakeshore, meadowlands of spikerush and sedge give way to Mixed-grass prairie. Vegetation composition, dominant species and distribution of plant species varies as the lake undergoes high water years and drought periods. This can occur in less than 60 years in some cases.

    Whitewater Lake is fed from 8 major creeks and streams from the Turtle Mountains to the south. The water is moderately brackish with sodium and magnesium sulfate salts predominating. Whitewater Lake lies in a flat, poorly drained terminal basin. Whitewater has no water outlet hence water is lost through evapotranspiration and possibly seepage. Consequently, lake levels fluctuate violently. With no water outlet, mineral content of the lake can be expected to increase over time. Lake levels can also fluctuate daily due to wind tides or seiches that affect water levels at opposing points on the lake. These tides can have deleterious effects on nesting birds by flooding nesting areas. Ransom and Hochbaum (1972) reported that on July 1 1970, a wind of 35-40 miles per hour moved water 1/8 of a mile beyond the normal waters edge and raised water levels by at least one foot.


    Grassland Birds

    The steep declines of grassland birds in Canada can be explained by the loss of grassland habitat. Fragmentation of prairie habitats has also led to declines in grassland birds. There is a need to conserve the remaining grassland stands in the Whitewater Lake area. Grasslands in southwestern Manitoba have consistently accounted for a majority of the endangered grassland birds nesting sites in Manitoba. Several grassland birds that are threatened nationally or endangered in Manitoba have been found at Whitewater Lake. These include the: Ferruginous Hawk, Burrowing Owl, Loggerhead Shrike and Baird’s Sparrow.

    Mixed-grass Prairie

    In southwestern Manitoba, significant tracts of Mixed-grass prairie still exist. The Mixed-grass prairie is a blend of the Tall-grass prairie and the Short-grass prairie. Plants of the Mixed-grass prairie are adapted to the climate and moisture conditions. Cool season plants emerge in the spring and lie dormant during the summer while warm season plants have a unique metabolism that allows them to grow during hot summers without losing moisture. It is reported that less than one quarter of the original 24 million hectares of Mixed-grass prairie remains in Canada. Mixed-grass prairie and many of its plants and animals have been and continue to be lost. The introduction of exotic weed species such as Leafy Spurge and Canada Thistle, encroachment by native shrubs and trees, and overgrazing by livestock have led to the degradation of thousands more hectares.

    Seaside Heliotrope

    Seaside Heliotrope, a rare plant in Manitoba, is localized and abundant at Whitewater Lake. It is a native herb found in southern parts of western Canada. Seaside Heliotrope is a low perennial that tolerates alkaline soils. The plants have fleshy stems, succulent leaves, and white flowers in scorpoid inflorescences. This plant contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids. Members of the genus (Heliotropium species) are used in herbal teas and have been used in several parts of the world for medicinal reasons.

    Newcomb’s Hollow – Boundary Commission Trail

    Newcomb’s Hollow interpretive site, just south of Whitewater Lake, features one of the longest remnants of the Boundary Commission trail left in existence. The site features native oak savanna with over 50 species of native Mix-grass prairie. Ground Plum, a rare plant, can also be found here. This is also the site of the Turtle Head Creek Riparian Project. Remnants of the Boundary Commission trail can be found near Turtle Head Creek where preserved wagon ruts can be seen. These wagon ruts are believed to be an old buffalo migration route.


    The Lake basin is Crown Land (public land) while the land surrounding Whitewater Lake is largely privately owned.

    Whitewater Lake has been designated a Wildlife Management Area (WMA), hence the lake itself is under the control of the province of Manitoba. Ducks Unlimited Canada has a license to manage water levels on a small portion of the eastern side of Whitewater Lake. The use of motorized boats is prohibired on Whitewater Lake.

    Waterfowl Hunting

    Hunters are the most significant users of Whitewater Lake. Waterfowl hunting has a long history at Whitewater Lake and ths been a traditional use of the area since the time of settlement. Whitewater Lake also provides opportunities for Sandhill Crane hunting.

    Depredation by waterfowl and Sandhill Cranes in surrounding agricultural fields is a concern. Economic losses due to depredation ranges yearly from insignificant to several thousand dollars.

    Value to Muskrats and Waterfowl

    The value of Whitewater Lake as a waterfowl and muskrat marsh has varied with changing water levels over the years. In 1933, 1934 and 1935 the lake was dry and had no value to waterfowl or muskrats. The marsh became productive once again around 1946 and 1947 when the estimated harvest was 11,914 pelts. Muskrat trapping was prohibited in 1949 after emergent vegetation such as Cattail and Bulrush died off and the marsh became an open lake. In August of 1968 there was virtually no emergent vegetation in the lake. However, in September of 1968 the lake was reflooded and stands of Alkali Bulrush established. These stands have since died out and emergent vegetation has returned.


    A large portion of the land is either under cultivation or used for grazing. Close to 90% of the uncultivated grasslands surrounding Whitewater Lake are used to graze cattle. Mixed farming predominates with the major crops being cereal grains, flax, rapeseed and domestic forage. The capability of the land varies from Class 2 to Class 6 with the majority being limited by excess water and salinity. Much of the Crown Land around Whitewater Lake is used for grazing or haying with or without government approvals. In wet years little or no haying occurs while in dry years haying operations are extensive.

    Mineral Exploration

    Oil extraction has occured in the Whitewater Lake basin since the early 1950’s. Ransom (1972) noted that sporadic exploration has been carried out since the 1950’s which includes the drilling of a hole in the bed of the lake in February of 1970. Oil Extraction takes place along the south side of the lake. The center portion of Whitewater Lake is not protected from oil and gas development. Discussion are in progress between Manitoba Conservation and the petroleum industry in an effort to protect portions of the WMA from petroleum exploration and development.


    Wildlife Management Area

    The majority of Whitewater Lake has been designated a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) and is protected from mining, logging and hydro-electric development. The center portion of Whitewater Lake has partial protection from logging and hydro-electric development but is not protected from oil and gas development. The Whitewater Lake WMA was established in 1972 and includes the lands covered by the waters of Whitewater Lake. In 1997 the WMA boundary was expanded to include most of the adjoining Crown Lands and area where the lake meets private lands. The WMA boundary was set at the Ordinary High Water Mark as surveyed in 1983. The WMA is defined by a Director of Surveys Plan No. 19675A. The WMA includes the managed marsh unit at the eastern side of the lake as well as Crown Lands surrounding the lake. The WMA is protected under regulations to the standards of the Protected Areas Initiative in all sectors except petroleum.

    Ducks Unlimited Habitat Restoration Project

    In 1989, after six years of planning, Ducks Unlimited began a $2 million dollar project to enhance the marsh area at the east end of the lake. Funding for this project came from the North American Waterfowl Management Plan and Ducks Unlimited while Manitoba Conservation provided nearly 800 hectares of its WMA for the project. Cooperation was also secured from local landowners, Manitoba Wildlife Foundation Inc., Turtle Mountain Conservation District, and the Rural Municipality of Morton.

    Ducks Unlimited completed construction of two wetland cells in 1997. Eight miles of dyke protect the marsh cells with an area of 900 hectares. The dykes serve two purposes (1) to hold fresh runoff water in the marsh cells and (2) to keep out saline lake water. The amount of water entering and leaving the marsh cells and backflood area is regulated by eleven water control structures. Runoff water is held temporarily in the backflood area and then released into the lake. This water management technique stimulates the growth of native Whitetop grass which provides rich feeding area and secure site for nesting birds and other wildlife early in the season, and a valuable hay crop for local farmers in the late summer.

    Wildlife Observation Area

    In the southeast end of Whitewater Lake, Manitoba Conservation has developed a public access area which includes a wildlife observation area compete with a viewing mound and a boardwalk system. From this area, opportunities exist to walk, canoe, hike or cycle the dike system surrounding the managed wetland cells. Access to the area is maintained by the Turtle Mountain Conservation District and is open to the public at no cost. The area is wheelchair accessible and has parking for cars or buses.

    Heritage Marsh

    Whitewater Lake is a candidate of Manitoba Heritage Marsh based upon the following elements.

    – Approximately 12,000 hectares in southwest Manitoba, 90% of which is Crown Land.
    – Major migration stop for Sandhill Cranes, Snow Geese, Tundra Swans and shorebirds.
    – Possibly the highest concentration of Tundra Swans anywhere in Manitoba in the fall.
    – Up to 10,000 White-fronted Geese observed in the fall.
    – Nesting colony of terns.
    – Whitetailed Deer use the marsh fringe in mid-winter.
    – Exceptional muskrat production in years of good water.


    Lattitude 49.247º N
    Longitutde 100.301º W
    Elevation 457-460 m
    Size 139.75 km2
    GPS: Northing 5454626 Easting 409756

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